A few weeks ago, the fine people over at General Mills invited me and a few other bloggers to give us (literally) a taste of the city’s foodie culture and learn a little bit (or A LOT) about what they do there at what they call “Big G.” I was barely there for more than 24 hours, but, man, oh, man did we—Kath from Kath Eats Real Food, Caitlin from Healthy Tipping Point and Emelie from Baby Loving Mama and I—do a lot. (And disclosure: They paid for my trip, but everything here is my own darn opinion and experience.)
Minneapolis (I freakin’ love the city—went to grad school there) is just a quick hour or so plane ride from Kansas City, and after a quick morning flight, I was checked into my hotel and down at Mill City Museum for educational sessions with various people from General Mills.
We ate, we chatted, we joked, and we sometimes took really serious-looking photos. Pretty sure we were figuring out world peace here. Or, ya know, how the oats in Cheerios are sourced and made into cereal. Which is, surprisingly both really interesting and enlightening. (FYI, they had a professional photographer on hand to snap photos. Nice touch.)
Turns out, the hulls of the oats are used for steam to create energy—and the ash leftover is used as fertilizer.
It takes about three hours total to make a Cheerio. And they get shaped through this cool little yet extremely heavy (it was like weight-lifting, seriously) doodad.
A couple of fun cereal facts: General Mills is reducing the sugar and sodium content in its cereals, but just by a little bit so that consumer palates can slowly adapt to the new flavor profile, without even noticing it. Sneaky Big G; I like it. Also, research shows that cereal-eaters tend to weigh less than non-cereal eaters. And, maybe, not too surprising is that the biggest consumers of cereal are kids (drops off in teen years), followed by college students and older adults. (FBG Erin, it should be noted, is a longtime Cheerio enthusiast!)
Our heads filled with cereal deets, we headed to dinner (will have more about the DELICIOUS meals and snacks I had over on Fit Bottomed Eats soon), then I met up with a few grad school buddies for drinks. We started the next day bright and early at General Mills’ corporate headquarters. With cereal art that I was pretty darn enamored with.
Seriously! It’s amazing. Like a gingerbread house, but cooler.
We had a great morning, eating breakfast (read: me trying Vanilla Chex—OMG addictive) and learning more fun Big G facts, like how Betty Crocker is actually a composite of hundreds of real women that has evolved over the years.
We got a full tour of Big G HQ, including the day care center, the art…
The gym! (Free for employees.)
And probably my favorite part of the whole trip, the food photography studios. Again, I’ll chat more about this over on FBE in the coming weeks, but we got to sneak a peek at a shoot going on with natural light. Everything they shoot they make and bake—it’s all real. No glue or cardboard food or trickery here! Also, they do all of their food photography in house.
And if that wasn’t enough to make me squeal with delight, the food-photography prop room clearly made me GIDDY.
It was an ENTIRE room dedicated to bowls and plates and platters and silverware and tables and, well, EVERYTHING in EVERY COLOR. It was AMAZING. And SO ORGANIZED. OMG, ALL CAPS IS NOT ENOUGH.
After a tasty lunch, we settled in for more presentations, including those on trends in food, how they go about finding inspiration for recipes and products (like us, they read blogs and obsessively check Pinterest), and an incredibly open and transparent discussion on their ingredients, their plans for the future and what goes on behind the scenes. Scenes that they don’t usually show to the everyday public.
As someone who eats mostly Paleo and doesn’t do gluten well, I was first pleased with the company’s gluten-free options (Rice Chex, what up) and second, really impressed with how engaged they were with the research on whole grains and how they were time and time again trying to do the right thing. In fact, numerous people from the company said that their internal motto of sorts is to “Do the right thing even when no one is looking.” There is no high-fructose corn syrup in their cereals (a fact none of us bloggers realized!), and they are working as fast as they can to remove artificial dyes and colors from their cereals. (So far everything they’ve tried has affected the flavor, caused clumping or there simply isn’t enough of the alternative color that they feel ethically okay sourcing because it could destroy an entire eco-system.) They also candidly discussed the whole GMO issue, saying that it’s been on their radar for years and is a supply issue.
A lot of times, I think we all—myself included—equate “big company” to “bad company.” And, clearly, I was just there for a day, but everyone I meet on this trip was open, honest and truly passionate about what they do. They’re active, they eat mostly clean fresh foods and they support a lifestyle of balance. But, they know that families and lower income people need options that are fast, nutritious, affordable, shelf-stable and available. And, well, cereal is that. So they’re doing the best possible job that they can to offer cereals that are as healthy as possible without sacrificing the consumer’s experience.
Yes, many of their cereals are still high in sugar and I myself rarely eat cereal (gluten-free or not), but instead of drastically changing the ingredients in products that people grew up with (and apparently are SUPER attached to) and ticking them off, they’re gradually making changes. People keep buying the cereal and slowly over time, these same people are eating more whole grains and less sugar and sodium without even realizing it. Again, I’m clearly not their target demographic, but they are making a real change in the nutrition of their consumers. And honestly, they’re probably making a difference in groups that aren’t quite ready or willing to whip up a green smoothie or chomp on kale. Ya know?
So, yeah, I left Minneapolis with an entirely different perspective on General Mills than what I came in with. They’re a company of passionate people who treat their employees incredibly well and are committed to having an inclusive environment. The company publicly opposed Minnesota’s recently proposed gay marriage ban, and they have been making headlines for featuring an interracial couple in a Cheerios commercial. Not to mention that the company offers its employees flex time, free gym membership, and has a Caribou Coffee and salon onsite, along with posh alternative meeting spaces and good family benefits. I may still not be a regular cereal eater, but I certainly have an entirely new fondness for the Big G.
Do you eat cereal? Surprised by what Big G is doing? Wish they were doing more? Chime in! —Jenn