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SunButter: Positioned for the Future

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
filed under: Utilization/Trade

When Sunbutter® first hit the test market in 2002, it was about changing people’s minds about an alternative to peanut butter. It ended up changing people’s lives.

The makers of SunButter were keenly aware of what they were up against when it came to Americans’ love of peanut butter. Working hard at winning over the taste buds of consumers was just one goal. Since then, SunButter has come a long way, having been called a “life-saver” by many who suffer from peanut allergies.

If you think there are more allergies these days than there were years ago, you are correct. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, an estimated 3 million Americans suffer from peanut and nut tree allergies. The problem is so widespread that, in recent years, peanuts have been banned from many schools. The time was right and the market was open for SunButter to seize the opportunity.

The USDA recognized sunflower seeds as a good peanut butter alternative from a nutritional standpoint as well. In a per-serving comparison, SunButter has a protein profile similar to peanut butter, but is even better nutritionally with two grams more of fiber, 40% of the daily recommended intake for vitamin E, along with more iron, less saturated fat, and less sodium.

From an industry standpoint, SunButter production has also increased demand for sunflower that did not exist. SunButter is one of the largest domestic users of sunflower kernel, with about three pounds of sunflower used for each jar. That added volume has led to increased demand pressure to the market.

Dan Hofland, vice president of marketing for Fargo, N.D.-based SunButter, comments on the product’s journey since it was first introduced.

— Sonia Mullally

Sunbutter was launched into the marketplace in 2003, primarily with schools in mind. How has the product impacted that sector?

Because we sell SunButter to the USDA as a school lunch commodity, we only know that certain states are using SunButter in all their schools. We have sold SunButter to individual schools that encompass every state in the union, including Hawaii and Alaska. We also offer 1.5-oz cups and 1.1-oz pouches to schools looking for convenient single-serve options.

Our primary market outside the USA is Canada. Most of their schools rely on sack lunches from home, although most schools are also peanut free. Our total Canadian market has been growing very rapidly, although [it is] much smaller than our U.S. market.

How has the product progressed and grown since its release?

We started with only one variety of SunButter, that being the Creamy version. We added a Honey Crunch not long after our initial launch. Many of our first stores were health food stores. They wanted a product that had dehydrated cane juice for a sweetener and nothing added that would prevent separation.

In 2004, we introduced the Natural version and shortly after that introduced the Natural Crunch. The Organic unsweetened was the result of customer requests and has become very popular on the East and West Coasts.

The popularity of Omega-3 oils in foods was the reason we introduced our Omega-3 SunButter with flaxseed. Our latest product introduction has been our Natural no-stir SunButter that retains all the healthy attributes of our Natural SunButter and adds the convenience of not needing to stir before use. Safeway stores are the latest grocery chain to add that variety.

How do the peanut-free movement and allergen-free community continue to create demand?

With 8% of children in the U.S. having food allergies, the public is becoming acutely aware of the issues of food allergies. One of the most common and severe food allergies is peanuts. Folks who are initially diagnosed with peanut allergies are told that their family must avoid peanut butter. In the U.S., taking peanut butter out of a household is a major problem. Peanut allergy families regularly tell us that SunButter is a “life saver” and that SunButter has changed their lives.

What stores is the product in, and does the product reach the entire country on the store shelf?

Our progress on getting into every major store chain in the U.S. has been much slower than we would have liked. Now, after nearly nine years, we are in every major supermarket chain across the country. We are carried in the major specialty distributors as well as many of the smaller health food stores. Target, Whole Foods and Walmart are three of our largest customers.

Besides the jar on the store shelf, what other products are currently produced using SunButter (i.e., snack food products)?

Making SunButter for the ingredient market was one of our primary goals early on. We have since concluded that succeeding at this goal is a long, slow process. Nevertheless, we do have companies making energy bars, chocolate SunButter cups, SunButter and jelly sandwiches and a SunButter peanut Tai sauce. We know of many other promising products being tested, but nothing has been made public yet.

How have the Internet and social media affected the marketing for SunButter?

Our allergy moms are very, very active on the Internet. We therefore work very hard at keeping our name high on the various search engines. We also have a very active Facebook page, [and] we communicate regularly on Twitter. We currently have nearly 4,000 active monthly Facebook users, with more being added every week.

SunButter can also be purchased online as well as finding our stores online. In short, social media have been very effective for SunButter.

What’s on the horizon for SunButter?

Our primary challenge as we go forward is to continue to grow at 20 to 30% per year. We also have a major initiative to promote SunButter to industrial users. We feel that we have made SunButter a proven leader and success in the category.

Peanut allergies are growing, and therefore we feel the time is right to return to promoting SunButter as an ingredient in various foods.

We continue to increase our emphasis on social media. We also remain very focused on the limited but growing allergy market. This allergy market is very passionate about SunButter. These passionate customers have been a critical factor in our past and future growth.

Editor’s Note: SunButter earned third place in this summer’s Mintel’s IFT (International Food Technologists) 2011 taste test under the “Flavor and Ingredient Predictions for 2011” category. The test was hosted by Mintel, a leading market research firm, at the 2011 IFT show in their New Products and Consumer Insights Pavilion, which played host to product tastings and presentations highlighting food, drink and foodservice industry trends. Among the presentations were Portion Size, Functional Foods and 2011 Flavor and Ingredient Predictions – the category in which SunButter placed third out of 24 total products.
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