Products with a Purpose

How Hormel Foods is supporting cancer patients through nutrition
Oct 27, 2017 11:45 AM ET

Inspired | Stories from Hormel Foods

by Laura Fraser

Justin Fairfax used to be a roadie for rock bands – and a foodie. “I love to eat so much I almost became a chef,” he said. Then, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments, he suddenly had no interest in eating. “I hated food, which is unusual for me,” Fairfax said.

To keep his strength up and to fight the disease, he knew he needed to eat, especially protein, but the meals he used to love had no appeal. The effort of shopping for ingredients or cooking even a simple dish was another seemingly insurmountable hurdle. “It would take all day to try to cook something, because I’d get tired and have to sit down.”

Three years into remission, he was working for a company that helped produce events for Hormel Foods when he heard someone onstage mention the Hormel Vital Cuisine™ brand, the company’s line of specialty products that help with recovery. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, why didn’t I know about this when I went through treatment?’” Fairfax remembered. “It made a big impact on me that a big company was dedicating its research and development efforts to making the lives of people who are going through cancer better and more comfortable.”

Fairfax spoke about the brand with a member of the Hormel Foods team, who offered him a few meals to try. “They were good – not just in the sense of something you could get down when you were undergoing chemo, but just plain-good meals,” Fairfax said. “People who are going through the difficult experience of cancer deserve that.”

Fairfax was so impressed by the effort that he decided he wanted to join the company. Today, he proudly works at Hormel Foods as a multimedia specialist in Studio H at the company’s Corporate Office in Austin, Minn.

Critical Nutrition During Treatment

Justin, like all cancer survivors and those who care for them, knows just how difficult cancer can be on the body and soul. As if the disease wasn’t cruel enough, chemotherapy and radiation treatment make recovery a marathon of fatigue, nausea and pain.

Doctors know that nutritious food is critical to maintain weight and muscle mass, and to give the body the nutrients it needs to heal. Without the right fuel for the body, cancer patients face increased chances of medical complications and a longer and more difficult recovery. But getting patients to eat new foods when they have no desire to eat at all is often a struggle.

So many people have been touched by cancer in some way, whether they are survivors like Fairfax or have had friends, family members or neighbors suffer from the disease.

“We had a representative from the Mayo Clinic on our board, right next to our world headquarters we have The Hormel Institute that does cancer research and Hormel Health Labs already makes specialty nutrition products,” recalled Tim Garry, director of marketing for Hormel Health Labs. “So it made sense to start thinking about making foods to help people undergoing cancer treatment.”

The company began reaching out to caregivers, nurses, oncologists and other experts to find out both about cancer patients’ nutritional needs and how the disease and treatment impact their relationships with food.

At the same time, the Cancer Nutrition Consortium (CNC), a nonprofit cancer research group, was looking to partner with a food company to produce a line of specialty products for cancer patients. Wendy Watkins, who had just recovered from treatment for breast cancer and was working for another company at the time, was on the board of the consortium. The CNC – whose members included experts from the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – had surveyed 1,000 cancer survivors about their eating challenges, and had outlined nutrition and food specifications for the company to produce.

“The Cancer Nutrition Consortium was developed to be a respected and trusted source of information on cancer nutrition,” said Watkins, who has now passed the crucial five-year survival mark in her own battle with cancer. “Our mission was to engage with world-renowned chefs and nutrition experts to develop recipes based on a first-of-its-kind multi-center research study. And while we developed hundreds of recipes with leading chefs, we also had the mission of partnering with a company to develop products for patients.”

One of the board members made the connection with Hormel Foods, and Watkins and others from the CNC board flew to Austin to meet with people from the company. “We realized that Hormel Foods and the Cancer Nutrition Consortium were going down a similar path and we were very impressed with the company’s commitment to those going through this cancer journey,” she said.

Don Kremin, group vice president of the Specialty Foods division at Hormel Foods, recalled the meeting when Hormel Foods and the CNC first formed their partnership. “It was a very logical step for us, because we’re innovators around food, we’re protein experts and right next door to our office is The Hormel Institute, which is a renowned cancer research facility,” he said. “But more than that, we realized that this was an opportunity for us to give back in a positive way. We’re using the power of protein to help people who are going through this difficult disease.”

Watkins knew from her own experience the difficulties cancer patients have getting enough nutrition during treatment. “Eating was such a challenge for me and I needed nutrition to keep up my strength,” she recalled.

At the time, Watkins led global communications for a large multi-billion dollar company and worked her regular schedule, including travel, during her multi-month treatment. “The chemo regimen I was on was intense and I had difficulty swallowing, nausea and taste sensitivities.” As with other patients the CNC surveyed, she experienced extreme fatigue, little appetite and needed easy meals to prepare both at home and at work. “What can you eat for lunch when nothing tastes normal?” she said.

Partnering with the CNC

The first time the CNC and Hormel Foods teams met, it was clear both groups shared a vision. “During the first meeting, I was so impressed with Hormel Foods, their leadership, people and their commitment to making a difference,” said Watkins. Thanks in part to her experience with the formation of the Hormel Vital Cuisine™ brand, Watkins later accepted an opportunity to work for Hormel Foods as its vice president of corporate communications.

Once the partnership was formed, months of research and product development began. “We spent a lot of time on the front end, making sure we understood what the needs were,” said Hormel Foods Senior Food Scientist Melissa Bonorden, who helped formulate the products in the test kitchen. CNC research revealed that cancer patients craved tasty, easy-to-prepare food that would help them keep their weight up. “We focused on providing convenient forms of protein,” she said.

The group talked to experts and sent Hormel Foods Cultural Anthropologist Tanya Rodriguez to cancer patients’ homes to do extensive interviews, look through their cupboards and detail what their needs were. Cancer impacts people of all ages, and Rodriguez found that many patients she interviewed weren’t used to having to be cared for or asking for help.

“Tanya found, in many cases, that these were independent people who suddenly felt wiped out,” said Garry. “They didn’t want to be a burden on people; they just wanted to microwave something in a minute or drink a bottle of something with no prep at all.”

The in-depth studies also revealed that patients weren’t getting enough information from their doctors about nutrition. “Either their health care providers weren’t talking much about nutrition – just telling them to eat, eat, eat – or the patients were so frazzled that it wasn’t a good time to be educated,” said Bonorden. Every Hormel Vital Cuisine™ package includes a link to the CNC website, which contains a great deal of nutritional information and other support for cancer patients. “The website gives the patients a more holistic experience with their nutrition needs. Food is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Once the cancer patients’ needs were identified, the team took the nutritional information from the CNC experts and went to work. Bonorden tinkered with 10 or more iterations of each recipe before taking it to master chef Ron DeSantis, former director of culinary excellence at Yale, who is on the board of the CNC. DeSantis tweaked the recipes so that they would have the best flavor and texture. “We focused a lot on taste, because if patients won’t eat the meals, the food can’t do its job,” said Garry.

DeSantis’ wife is a breast cancer survivor, and he recalls the difficulty of making appealing food for someone who was sensitive to smells and tastes and had little appetite. “It was a huge challenge for a caregiver,” he said. In developing the Hormel Vital Cuisine™ brand, he said the nutritional component was the most critical. “If you’re eating them, you’re getting the complete nutritional balance you need.”

From there, he focused on flavor, with products that went from delicate and full of comfort, like chicken dumplings, to meals with more robust flavors. “You need a range of flavors. Some days, my wife was feeling good and wanted something exciting,” he recalled. The third component of the meals is preparation, ensuring a good texture. “The Hormel Foods team did an incredible job of making these foods feel like traditional-style stews,” he said. “What differentiates our products from a lot of others is that you have the consistency you would expect from a chef-prepared stew.” The team developed six meals, all packed with nutritious oils and protein, as well as ready-to-drink shakes and powdered shake mixes.

The products are marketed directly to the health care industry and are also available online for anyone to purchase. The company donates thousands of cases of products to groups like the American Cancer Society program called Hope Lodges, where patients and family members can stay while undergoing treatment at major medical centers. In addition, a percentage of the profits from Hormel Vital Cuisine™ product sales goes to support the CNC in its ongoing efforts to improve nutrition for cancer patients.

Hormel Vital Cuisine™ products have been featured in global publications, including a feature in Oprah Magazine and Forbes. The product line was also a finalist in the World Food Innovation Awards. But more important than its visibility in the media is the accolades it receives from the very patients it was developed to help.

Patient Feedback

Many patients have contacted Hormel Foods to let the company know how much they appreciate the meals.

“Hormel Vital Cuisine™ products saved my hide,” wrote cancer patient Skip Mayhew during the time he was going through chemotherapy. “Tomorrow I’m going to get up and have a shake, and probably two or three more during the day, and I’m going to feel good about it. It helps you win!”

Michele Hughes and her husband, Leo, both went through cancer treatments during the same period of time. “These products came at a perfect time,” she wrote. As a former nurse, Hughes knew well the importance of diet for cancer patients. Having an easily prepared nutritious meal made her days a little easier. “Leo and I both like them. They are delicious and easy to use when you don’t feel like cooking.”

Notes like those from Hughes and Mayhew get passed around between teammates at Hormel Foods who worked to create the brand. Hearing firsthand stories about how the product line helps people going through difficult times has become a source of deep pride for the company.

“It has been a tough year for us in every respect,” Hughes wrote at the end of her note, “Your help is appreciated. God bless you and thanks for your kindness.”