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Against the Grain

Dominic Alcocer ’00 heads up gluten-free marketing for General Mills, from Bisquick to Betty Crocker  Dominic Alcocer ’00 heads up gluten-free marketing for General Mills, from Bisquick to Betty Crocker When he was in the Air Force, Dominic Alcocer ’00 helped design countermeasures to foil attacking missiles; now, he’s working to protect consumers from the […]

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Dominic Alcocer ’00 heads up gluten-free marketing for General Mills, from Bisquick to Betty Crocker
 

Dominic Alcocer ’00 heads up gluten-free marketing for General Mills, from Bisquick to Betty Crocker

When he was in the Air Force, Dominic Alcocer ’00 helped design countermeasures to foil attacking missiles; now, he’s working to protect consumers from the perils of wheat gluten. The former electrical engineering major is the marketing manager for General Mills’ gluten-free initiative, which includes a cadre of new products and the development of the website glutenfreely.com. With more Americans being diagnosed with celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities, or simply avoiding the protein with an eye to potential health benefits, gluten-free has become the latest dietary watchword—and a burgeoning market sector.

Dominic AlcocerCornell Alumni Magazine: Why is it so hard to make gluten-free products that taste like their conventional counterparts?

Dom Alcocer: Gluten has a number of properties that give food its stickiness—like in cookie dough, or to help bread rise, or to have a moist texture. Not having that component in recipes and formulae makes it difficult to make food, period, let alone make it taste great. When we were making gluten-free Bisquick and Betty Crocker dessert mixes, we had more than 1,000 trials in our R&D facilities. We tried seventy-five formulae before we finally got something we could put our brands on and be proud of. One of the experts at glutenfreely.com likes to say that twenty years ago it was all cardboard.

CAM: To prepare for your job, you and your wife went gluten free for forty days. What was that like?

DA: It was very difficult. It immediately strikes you how many things in our dietary lives involve gluten; for example, you use wheat flour as a base for most gravies. But I had a deep passion to understand what these consumers go through. When I tell people about the level of rigor with which I did it, their eyes widen.

CAM: How so?

DA: I called my toothpaste company and lip balm company. I had to switch to a new brand of lip balm because the one I was using was not gluten free. Medicines, cosmetics—it’s everywhere.

CAM: Did the diet make you feel different?

DA: We both felt great. I actually lost a little weight. My wife is still on what she calls the “gluten-free-light” diet. Even now, just for fun, when I go out to restaurants I ask servers, chefs, and barkeeps if they have gluten-free options or a gluten-free menu, to help educate the food industry, one employee at a time.

CAM: One common complaint is that gluten-free products are too expensive. Why is that?

DA: Trials go into the cost of developing a product. The ingredients that we use to get the texture and flavor of, say, gluten-free Betty Crocker brownies are not as readily available, or we don’t use them enough to get economies of scale. Also, we have a robust testing mechanism at General Mills to make sure that all of our products are really gluten free.

CAM: Some might say that gluten free is just the latest dietary fad, akin to low fat and low carb. How do you respond to that?

DA: That’s a question I love to answer. For a certain portion of Americans, gluten free will come and go. But there is a portion who must remain gluten free for the remainder of their lives. Those people are going to need what we do forever.

—Beth Saulnier

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