For any food company, recipe formulation and testing are the first step to bringing a successful product to market, and sometimes the most basic ingredients are the most important. While consumer awareness and demand around healthier and more natural options continue to grow, many brands and manufacturers are making moves to switch to less processed, organic or non-GMO ingredients that still maintain the same quality in formulation, if not better, than their original counterparts.

Earnest Eats, a natural brand producing a line of snack bars, granola bars and hot cereals, has embraced the notion that innovation plays a key role in its growth strategy as does finding ways to build fan loyalty, according to Andrew Aussie, co-founder and president. From the beginning, the company developed the Earnest Eats product line with the mission of using real foods from nature and letting those ingredients shine without adding fillers, preservatives or anything artificial. So, when it came to developing its most recent launch, Hot & Fit Cereals, it became clear that making a switch to non-GMO ingredients was essential to the continued growth of the brand.

From state legislations to a proposed national bill and Whole Foods Market’s announcement that all foods containing GMOs sold in its stores will eventually need to be labeled, consumers and food manufactures alike are realizing the importance of adopting practices to avoid GMOs. Aussie believes non-GMOs will only continue to grow as a category and be an important qualifier at store shelves for shoppers.

A “Sweet” Switch to Non-GMO

Innovation is more than creating a new product; it means rethinking the traditional way of doing things. Earnest Eats developed the recipe for its new Hot & Fit Cereals with Superfood grains (like chia and amaranth) as the focus, but reached a point where the company wanted to ensure it could easily pursue Non-GMO Project Verification when the time was right. That meant every ingredient needed to be non-GMO. It may sound easy enough, but finding a non-GMO sugar proved to be a challenge, according to Aussie. Most sugar in the U.S. is harvested from sugar beets, which are almost always a GMO crop. Many refined sugars also are made with bone char, which is an important differentiation to many vegan consumers, a key audience for the brand.

The company’s search for a non-GMO sugar that was as close to nature as possible eventually lead to Zulka, an unrefined “morena” sugar made from simply evaporating the juice of fresh sugar cane. Plus, the ingredient is already Non-GMO Project Verified, which is nearly impossible to find at an affordable price on the industrial side. It also helps makes the Non-GMO Project Verification process much easier as Earnest Eats pursues certification. Aside from being non-GMO, Aussie notes his team immediately saw advantages of working with Zulka over other suppliers, including affordability, transparency, taste and the company’s national distribution capabilities which allows manufacturers to use the same source of sugar from coast-to-coast.  The transparency is key because social media is a focus for Earnest Eats and the story about the sugar and Zulka adds to the depth of the brand. According to Aussie, knowing that Zulka procures the sugar from field to packaging, and has been doing so for longer than a hundred years, gives him great confidence in the reliability and consistency. Additionally, because Zulka is so experienced with natural foods applications, the company was a great resource on the development of the formulation, and was highly responsive.

From a product formulation standpoint, the sugar offers a cleaner and brighter sweetness than brown sugar or evaporated cane juice, which can sometimes overpower the flavor profile in products. Since it is so pure, Zulka also doesn’t have some of the negative associations and “off” flavors of alternative sweeteners, like agave and stevia. To Aussie’s surprise, Zulka actually enhanced some of the other flavors in Earnest Eats’ cereal, like the roasted nuts, grains and seeds. After testing several different batches, the company found it could also use a little less than traditional white sugar, which helped cut down on costs, while achieving a more full-bodied sweetness. In fact, Earnest Eats uses about half the sugar of mainstream brands in the same type of product, a significant difference. While part of this difference is due to wanting a less sweet perception, part was also due to the flavor profile of the Zulka sugar.

The Proof Is in the Cereal

In the food industry many always say “tasting is believing,” and Aussie believes Earnest Eats Hot & Fit Cereal is the brand’s most successful product line yet for two reasons: 1) the simple yet flavorful formulation that highlights each ingredient, and 2) it is a non-GMO product consumers feel good about eating and feeding their families. In fact, Earnest Eats hot cereal cups received the “Best Breakfast Award” from SELF Magazine, an indication of how well the product has been received. The company has received a great deal of consumer feedback about how its cereals have just the right amount of sweetness; not too much and not too little. Even better, it hasn’t’ had comments that sweetness or flavor has changed, which is another reason Aussie appreciates Zulka; it made for a seamless transition from using white sugar without any of the consumer issues that are often common with ingredient changes.