McCormick Science Institute

Transforming Trusted Brands: The Art of Consumer Insights and Science to Deliver Health

Tahiri, Maha PhD


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Maha Tahiri, PhD, is vice president and chief health and wellness officer of the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition at General Mills, Inc, Golden Valley, Minnesota.

The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Correspondence: Maha Tahiri, PhD, General Mills Bell Institute, 9000 Plymouth Ave, North Minneapolis, MN 55427 (

General Mills, Inc, started as 2 flour mills in the 1860s. Today, the company has more than 40000 employees and more than 100 brands, including Big-G cereals, Progresso soups, and Yoplait yogurts, in more than 100 countries. A decade ago, the company made a decision to focus on “better for you” foods. It believed then—and believes now—that health is a winning growth strategy.


General Mills’ approach to product improvement is science based and requires continuous attention. Through the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, General Mills conducts research on dietary intake and the role of diet and individual foods in health. The company also uses “stealth health,” a strategy in which small changes in a food product, such as reducing sodium, are included in the Nutrition Facts panel but not announced on the front of the package; undertaken without the consumer’s knowledge; and carried out over time so consumers can adapt slowly to the altered taste. A study with consumers in the home, for example, found that exposure to a reduced-sugar yogurt for 5 weeks brought its overall liking close to the baseline rating of a well-liked higher-sugar yogurt, which scored 7 on a 9-point scale. Finally, any changes in composition and flavor must be sustainable in the market. If consumers will not buy a product or they buy it, try it once, and never consume it again, then the product cannot stay on the grocery store shelf in today’s competitive market.


In 2005, a cumulative health metric was launched to follow the improvements made in food products. The main nutritional improvements in the company’s US retail food products have included increasing whole grains, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and decreasing calories, sodium, sugar, trans-fat, total fat, and saturated fat in food products. Last year, the company offered more than 500 products such as Yoplait Light yogurt with less than 100 calories per serving and more than 800 products such as Multi Grain Cheerios that had less than 150 calories per serving.


There is no typical consumer. Understanding the motivations of a diverse population requires a variety of approaches. For instance, focus groups provide direct feedback on consumer motivations for food purchases. Ethnographic research involving interviews with individual consumers and families is another strategy. Here, researchers may live with a family to gain insights about their views of healthy food products. In 1 such ethnographic research project, a mother was asked, “What is a healthy food product?” Her answer: a pot pie. Her definition of healthy was “hot and filling.” Dividing consumers into segments based on their opinions and attitudes about health and nutrition also provides insight into common mind-sets. For example, according to a proprietary study, 29% of consumers are strongly motivated by health, whereas the remainder is sometimes motivated by health or they value convenience and family functions more than health.


Marketing experts indicate that consumers want simplicity in food products and food labels. They want food products that are sustainable. And they are prone to ask questions: What is goodness? What is healthy? Consumers are moving to a wellness definition of health. In other words, health and wellness are becoming intertwined, and consumers are asking for both aspects in food products.


General Mills sought to develop a light soup in partnership with Weight Watchers. The company first gained consumer insights about reduced-fat and reduced-calorie food products and then examined consumers’ culinary mindset. It aimed to give consumers their “hero” ingredients—vegetables, pasta, and cream—without sacrificing flavor and texture. A complex flavor using spices and herbs was paired with a cream-like texture to compensate for less cream in the final product. Although the continual assessment of product stability, flavor, and texture during development took several years, Progresso Light Soups, which contain at least one-third fewer calories than their regular counterparts, claimed a 90% share of the light soup market.


The experience of food product developers suggests that the art of successful health improvements in food products involves a formula that combines health as a core strategy, a consumer-centric approach, significant resources, a long-term commitment, and patience. For example, a 10% reduction in the sodium content of food products that maintain product acceptability can take as long as 3 years to develop. Good results can be achieved by focusing on taste, convenience, and affordability.

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