Interview with an Innovator

Rude Health’s Bertel Haugen: ‘Most gluten-free products are worse than their gluten-containing counterparts’

The head of innovation talks about clean label, snacking experiments and the new drinks launching in March.

7 December 2018

Haugen on Paper – CV

  • Studied music composition at Kingston University
  • Stumbled into a job at Windmill Organics, where he was involved in launching food and drink
  • Started at Rude Health in 2013, rising to head of innovation

Bertel Haugen describes the innovation process at Rude Health as quite haphazard, not to mention a bit random and chaotic, but he says he thrives in that environment and appreciates it isn’t the traditional way the industry generally works.

He grew up on a small organic farm in Wales where he remembers drinking raw milk, making yoghurts and cream cheese, and growing vegetables, though he never expected to end up in a career in food.

That is exactly what happened, however, after he fell into a role at health food brand Windmill Organics following university. This led to a role at Rude Health, where over the last five years he has risen to the head of innovation. Everyone at the company is food obsessed, he says, so the product ideas are limitless. The hard part is making them happen.

Nevertheless, he believes the brand’s approach to innovation gives it a head start in the market. His team is involved in the whole process, compared to most FMCG companies that generally split the process into the technical (like recipe development) and marketing (packaging and product benefits) sides.

“We are meeting with suppliers, finding out about ingredients and processes, challenging them on improving or simplifying things, and then at the same time coming up with product ideas. So it’s like conducting an orchestra and pulling together everything,” he explains.

In the Rude Health cafe in Putney, he talks to Food Spark about why failing is an important part of innovation, the trends happening in snacking and the strict ingredient rules the brand follows.


We are a very flat structure. All the directors are involved with my department on a day-to-day level, so it’s not the case that we are creating concepts that we then have to present to the directors for them to approve. They are involved from day one in each project, so we never really have to sell it to them. It’s an intuitive fast-paced approach that really works.

I spend a lot of time actually in shops looking at categories, talking about it, seeing what the trends are. Also, I do travel quite a lot, going to the rest of Europe and America and seeing what’s happening there, so that’s where we get a lot of inspiration.

The advantage we have at Rude Health is the name doesn’t limit us to any category, so we are not stuck anywhere.

Since I joined, we have launched over 50 products, and I’ve been involved with pretty much all of them. This year we have launched 15 new products. Some have been a runaway success already – and some not so much.

They always say if you’re going to fail, then fail fast. I still believe some day there is a place for it, but we launched peanut milk in May this year, which was really difficult because there are only so many factories that can actually make those type of drinks and none of them want to touch peanuts, because of the allergen risk. So it took a long time to find someone who was able to do it. I really like it and maybe it’s just too early, but it hasn’t worked. We have learned a lot in the process, so it’s absolutely not a failure in our minds.

About three years ago, we launched a range of sprouted products. That was a trend we spotted in America – they generally tend to be quite a bit ahead of us in terms of health food trends – and we thought let’s try it here. To be honest, we were way too early, but we just kept going with it. Now, finally this year it is really starting to pay off. We’ve got it listed in Waitrose,and things like that I like to see – it’s been a slow build.

Kombucha has been another big thing as I’ve been on my own personal journey with it. When I joined Rude Health, Nick [Barnard, brand co-founder] pretty early on gave me a SCOBY, which is the culture that you make kombucha with. He’s obsessed with fermentation and sprouting, so it’s a big part of what we talk about. So I made it at home, experimented myself and brewed it a long time.

We tried to launch kombucha three years ago, we were very close to doing it, but we decided it was too early. Now, we have finally launched it all these years later, but it’s been a nice journey to understand the culture myself. We brew it in our offices as well, and for a time we were brewing it and selling it in the cafe with seasonal flavours.

We don’t do paid consumer research when we are launching a product. We all taste it, then we get friends and family to taste it,or we might get people to taste it in the cafe. I feel like that might slow us down, if we did consumer research where you start to dumb down, as you are appealing to a wider audience – which is fine, but it wouldn’t work for our products.

Part of the thing that makes Rude Health different from other brands within our space is that we are incredibly strict on ingredients we can and can’t use. So the rule is anything that you wouldn’t have in your own kitchen cabinet, we don’t use. Lectin, emulsifiers, thickeners, gums – we just don’t use them. That actually massively limits what we can launch… So a lot of my time is spent trying to hammer that home to manufacturers.

Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals has been in decline for a long time. It’s been close to 20 years and a lot of the big players are struggling in that category. We’re still growing in that category because we have stuck to our guns in terms of our ingredients. We don’t use refined sugar, [the cereals] are not crazy shapes or overly processed, they are just good, honest, quality breakfast.

I think ingredient lists are more and more important. The industry term is clean ingredient lists, but that’s what we have always had – we don’t like the word clean, we just like it to be simple.

One of the things we are looking into are more children’s cereals. If you think about it, most of the category is aimed at kids, so Weetabix, Rice Crisps and all the big brands are actually kids’ cereals, even though lots of adults eat them. More and more parents are looking for simpler things to give their kids. We are really stripping it back and are looking to do more in that area.

We haven’t really gone in heavy for gluten-free, because often you are limited to what you can do and most gluten-free products are worse than their gluten-containing counterparts, because what you miss in texture from certain grains you make up by putting sugar in and other things.

We have always had snacks, but it’s always been big box snacks. We have never really played with on-the-go snacks. Earlier this year, we launched cornitas, made with corn that’s puffed. There’s also lentils, chickpeas and black beans in them – whole pulses within the cracker – and those are in on-the-go format. It’s still quite early for us as they aren’t our main channel, so the sales are good but they could be a lot better. But that’s just down to the way our business is set-up – we are more geared towards grocery.

We launched new snack bars recently. They are made with just nuts and seeds and baked in honey,so they are actually a lot lower in sugar than the date-based bars. We have date-based bars ourselves, but we found that is a really hard category in the UK especially, as there is just so much competition.

Something that really surprised us: if you look in the snacking category, there is nothing organic at all. No snack bars are organic, so ours are.

I think we will see more nutritionally dense snacks that are actually going to do something good for you, keep you going and also taste nice, rather than just a treat. You don’t see snacks as a meal replacement but it is a small meal – I think that’s the trend we are seeing.

We do sprouted flour, which was part of the original sprouted launch three years ago. I’ll be honest, it isn’t massive for us, but I think we are the wrong brand for it. I think we are better making something that is ready to eat for the customer. So at the moment we would love to make more products with the sprouted flour and sell those, rather than just the ingredient.

We want to do more fermented, but genuine fermented, as gut health is a big trend. I think it’s the right time to do fermented, as supermarkets are ready now. In the health food sector, there’s been fermented products for ages now.

We are launching some new drinks in March next year. This is crossing more into hot drink territory, so a hot chocolate and turmeric lattes. They are ready, you can pour it in a cup or put it in a pan and heat it up and drink it. It’s a bit of an experiment and we will see. We also want to develop more dairy-free drinks.

Timing is so important and that can be elusive. We have seen that many times.

Simplicity of messaging is also important and we fall into that trap. If you’ve got too much to say it’s not going to work, you need one very clear reason to exist for each thing you create.

Because we have been within breakfast cereal and snacks, it’s tricky for us to do too much with world cuisines, but we absolutely love world cuisines at Rude Health. I love kimchi and gochujang and those fermented things they do. We would love to find a way to incorporate that into our food in some way, but it’s tricky. We can’t really do a kimchi granola.

Frozen is an interesting area. It ticks a lot of boxes that people are concerned about. You can do a lot with packaging within frozen, so you don’t have to use as much plastic. You can preserve seasonality and prevent food waste. There is going to be a lot happening in frozen in the next year I would say – it’s already starting now.

Since the beginning, we have always wanted to be in the most sustainable packaging and we have had a lot more questions about it this year... You can’t use recycled cardboard for food because there could be inks that leach into the food, so our cardboard is recyclable and we are using Tetra Pak, who have their own programme for environmental sustainability.

In terms of plastic, we are trying, but it’s really hard to find the right thing, because you get alternative films that might be compostable but they might be compostable in only an industrial composter, and only a few councils supply that, so it’s really tricky.

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