AUSTIN, Minn. - Shortly after his mother died of cancer two years ago, Jeff Ettinger, then-chief executive of Hormel Foods, asked the company's specialty division to explore how to help people undergoing treatment or recovering from it.
The timing was right. The Cancer Nutrition Consortium, a group of U.S. researchers, was looking for a food manufacturer to produce nutritional products based on what it saw as a gaping need. Patients undergoing chemotherapy often experience extreme fatigue, unintentional weight loss, and low appetite and energy.
"You feel like you finished the New York marathon and have no energy to cook," said Bruce Moskowitz, a Florida physician and consortium board member. "Many people end up going to a fast-food restaurant to take home a meal, which is not the nutrition they need."
The collaboration with the consortium led Austin-based Hormel in May to release a line of foods for cancer patients called Vital Cuisine.
The ready-to-make meals are designed to be easy for fatigued patients to make, are packed with protein and calories, and help with hydration - which are problems during care.
The original idea for cancer-focused foods came to Moskowitz from a breast-cancer patient who was frustrated with the lack of nutrition in her diet. After an extensive literature review, Moskowitz found plenty of health claims about the cancer-fighting nature of certain foods, yet a dearth of nutritive foods suitable for those in the midst of care.
Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of food purveyor Delaware North and owner of the Boston Bruins, funded a new study by the Cancer Nutrition Consortium to meet the specific needs these patients face.
By the time Hormel entered the picture, this consortium - made up of private groups and medical centers like the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute - had outlined nutrition and food specifications for a company to produce.
"We were on these parallel paths and then came together. They were looking for a food manufacturer that could take their recipes and mass produce them," said Mark Nellermoe, general manager of specialty products at Hormel. "We are not a pharmaceuticals sales company, we are not a medical food company, we are a company trying to sell good nutrition to . . . providers and patients."
Once the partnership formed, the products took months of research and development between Hormel and Ron DeSantis, a master chef at Yale University whose wife is a cancer survivor. Hormel brought food formulation, packaging, and shelf stability knowledge. DeSantis brought taste and texture wherewithal. The full line launched in July and is being sold online.
"This is to Hormel's credit. This is a micro-niche, and big corporations don't want to bother with those," Moskowitz said. "It's corporate goodwill that got this through, nothing else."
Moskowitz said his patients have all responded favorably to the Vital Cuisine products. "They are delighted," he said. "Ninety percent of the people undergoing treatment don't have the resources or family to cook for them."
A pack of seven meals - such as chicken and dumplings or vegetarian stew - is available online for about $19. A four-pack of protein shakes is being sold for about $14 and seven whey-protein drink mix packets sell for about $10.
The long-term goal is to get the products into drugstore and big-box chains.