When I think of product design, my Silicon Valley-raised brain goes straight to software or electronic gadgets. But every food product that stocks our grocery store shelves is also "designed" — culinary wizards and food scientists with chemistry backgrounds are mixing hundreds of ingredients with slight recipe adjustments to create the next trendy oat milk or granola bar.
Traditionally, the two most important criteria to balance in this process have been taste and cost, but Simple Mills and other environmentally conscious brands are adding a new aspect to their design specifications — sustainability.
"We make regenerative ag part of the design process," said Shauna Sadowski, vice president of sustainability at Simple Mills. To that end, the Chicago-based company is consulting soil scientists, farmers and other experts to find and source new ingredients that can combat climate change and expand its product offerings. This could mean substituting a water-intensive grain for one that is more water-adaptive or sourcing from farmers who practice regenerative agriculture or it could involve expanding the types of ingredients used in recipes to combat monoculture farming.
One of Simple Mills’ goals is to create more diversity in diets and by extension, more biodiversity of crops grown. According to Emily Lafferty, senior manager of strategic sourcing at Simple Mills, farmers want to grow more than just soy, corn and wheat. So Simple Mills talks to its farmers regularly to understand what types of crops they are interested in growing.
"We’re increasingly asking farmers, 'What do you want to grow that we can help provide a market for?'” she said. "What are additional crops that they want in their rotation that have ecological benefit or have high carbon-sequestration potential that we can ultimately drive more demand for?"
Simple Mills makes makes packaged crackers, cookies, bars, baking mixes and frostings.The company tries to use unconventional ingredients beyond the typical wheat flour. Many of its products use almond flour, flax meal and coconut sugar. But figuring out the best ways to combine these untraditional ingredients takes a lot of designing, baking and testing, as was the case with a new pancake mix the company developed during the pandemic.
During the 2020 summer, Simple Mills’ senior research and development manager, Anna Gensch, was having daily pancake parties at the Simple Mills test kitchen in Chicago. But she was mostly by herself or with very limited staff, sometimes dropping off pancakes at co-workers’ houses.
"We probably had 15 to 20 different flours that we were looking at," she said. "I was making six or nine different types [of pancakes] in a three-day period."
Chestnut flour was one ingredient that has been top of mind since Simple Mills’ CEO attended a permaculture class and came back singing its sustainability praises in 2019.
Chestnut trees are a powerful carbon sequestration crop that once dominated the U.S. landscape before being wiped out by two diseases (the Ink Disease in the 1800s and the chestnut blight in the early 1900s). They are now primarily grown in Europe. Chestnuts are perennials, meaning the tree reflowers and produces chestnuts every year. Farmers don’t need to rip them out of the ground and plant new ones every year as is the case with annuals such as grains, corn and wheat that only survive one season and represent most of the food we eat and grow. Harvesting annuals involves tilling and removing the carbon stored in the roots, both terrible practices for carbon sequestration.
"In the case of chestnuts, they can grow for over 100 years," Sadowski said. "They might take a longer time to establish, but once they’re in the ground, they’re helping to not only have the above-ground mass diversity, but they’re having below ground carbon sequestration because of the long root structures that help to feed the soil."
Farmers would love to do more diverse crops; they just don’t always have a market for it.
According to Gensch, the chestnut flour also has a natural sweetness, a characteristic that gave Simple Mills the opportunity to make a no-sugar-added product. Thus, the No Sugar Added Chestnut Flour Pancake & Waffle Mix was born. Today, customers can purchase the mix from Amazon and Simple Mills’ direct-to-consumer website.
The chestnut flour pancake checks two of Simple Mills’ internal environmental activation areas — increasing crop diversity and supporting proven regenerative agriculture practices. (The other two are fostering direct trade with farmers and supporting place-based agriculture.) The product was extremely tasty (I can corroborate as I tasted the product for my Saturday morning brunch), so the company turned toward figuring out scaling and commercialization. This meant finding reliable suppliers for an uncommon ingredient.
"We really had a desire to source chestnuts domestically from launch," Lafferty said. "But we recognized in the discovery process that just wasn’t going to be commercially feasible."
For now, Simple Mills is sourcing chestnuts from 5,000 small "spontaneous" (non-plantation) orchards harvested by hand in Italy and Albania. But the company is partnering with the Savannah Institute, an agroforestry group, working to bring back the U.S. chestnut.
"We can help to be a market signal," Sadowski added. "Farmers would love to do more diverse crops; they just don’t always have a market for it."
Many food companies are in the process of finding sustainable suppliers for the ingredients in the recipes and products that made them successful. But Simple Mills flipped the process on its head.
"I think the challenge can be reverse engineering," Sadowski said. "When you have the opportunity to design [sustainably] from the get-go, you’re basically building it from the ground-up versus trying to reverse engineer from the back end, which is always more challenging from any level."