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Meet the Willy Wonka of the Northwest Burbs

Andrew Taylor, head of innovation at the ingredient developer Tate & Lyle, on creating stealthily healthier processed foods

Andrew Taylor
Photo: Lucy Hewett

What’s it like inside your Hoffman Estates facility? I’m picturing Willy Wonka’s factory.

Well, our scientists aren’t Oompa-Loompas. They’re PhDs. But we do have a cookie machine [to test additives]. Dough goes in one side. Out drop fresh, hot cookies. It’s awesome, I’m not going to lie.

So, do people race up to your desk and say, “Taste this!”?

In this business, you eat a lot of bad-tasting stuff. Not our own stuff, mostly — all the stuff already out there, so we can understand how it works. There are some artificial meats I wish I could untaste.

What are the big ingredient trends right now?

The really large one is sugar reduction and the use of natural sweeteners. Some companies are making as much as a third or a half reduction in sugar content — but what’s interesting is they’re not making a big deal of it. There’s a long history of bad-tasting low-calorie candies. You don’t want to set off that consumer reaction. If you’re trying to make your chocolate slightly better for people, you don’t want them to think, “I’m having a nasty low-cal chocolate.”

Your company created Splenda and does a lot of tinkering to help food companies make things healthier. What’s the difference between that and what SnackWell’s did back in the day, when it took out fat and replaced it with sugar?

When you ate SnackWell’s, were you reading the label?

Oh, of course not.

And when you buy a product now, you’re really reading the label. The standard is a lot higher. And the standard for mouthfeel and texture is a lot higher. The other big difference is that now information travels so fast. If you’re perceived as not doing what’s right, you will know. Thirty-nine percent of our launches in the last year or so have had a clean-label component.

How does your work affect your own eating habits?

I read every label, and it drives my wife insane. We’re in the supermarket, I pull out two products, and I’m going, “I know where that [ingredient] is from. I don’t like this.” And she’s like, “Would you just put it in the cart?”

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