By Lorrie Baumann
The founders of Among Friends are unabashedly advocates for whole grains, as is today’s CEO Darcy Zbinovec, who joined the company in 2014. Among Friends, founded by Suzie Miller and Lizann Anderson, makes a whole line of gluten-free baking mixes based on whole grains. The company started several years ago as a local enterprise, but began expanding nationally in 2013 after the products had built a fan base.
The baking mixes are based on whole grains, but also include low added sugar and no added fillers or high-glycemic starches for a clean-label appeal that draws consumers who are seeking to eat foods made only with ingredients their grandmothers would have recognized. “We continue to see gluten free growing, and as it grows, we see consumers looking for better quality – not just that it’s gluten-free anymore, but that it’s got some positive aspects,” Zbinovec said. “Even people who aren’t looking for gluten free are looking for clean labels, and we’ve got really clean labels.”
High-glycemic starches like tapioca and potato starch as well as fillers like xanthan gum are often added to other gluten-free products to hold them together in place of gluten, which creates the structure in conventional baked goods, said Zbinovec. The result is an end product that doesn’t have the traditional texture associated with traditional home-baked goods. “The typical products that use these ingredients have a very fine crumb with a very smooth texture caused by the starches and the gum,” she said.
Among Friends, by contrast, has found ways to use whole grains and other clean ingredients to produce mixes that turn into baked goods whose texture more closely resembles that of the cookies and muffins that grandma might have turned out. “We’re using whole-grains oats, brown rice, sorghum. These whole ingredients rather than a processed starch give a more natural-tasting texture – more like the kind of texture that homemade products that are not gluten free have,” Zbinovec said. “We get a lot of consumers who write to us and tell us that they passed it off as their own. We love reading this because that’s kind of our intent.”
The Among Friends baking mixes are all certified gluten free, non GMO, and each package is labeled on the front of the package to let consumers know how much whole grain they’re getting per serving. “It’s really about nutrition,” Zbinovec said. “Whole grains contain both probiotics and prebiotics. They’re just better for the body.”
The baking mixes are designed to allow consumers either to bake them exactly according to the package directions or to customize them with add-ins that turn the end product into something that is customized to their taste. Among Friends helps with recipes and ideas on the company’s web site. A box of Shane’s Sweet n Spicy Molasses Ginger Cookie Mix, for instance, can turn into Bananas About Pie, a banana cream pie with a sassy ginger-molasses crust. Cora’s Honey Cornbread Mix might get a pop of heat with the addition of some jalapenos or show up for brunch with some blueberries stirred in. Blueberry Lemon Muffins might start with a box of Francie’s Make it Your Own Cinnamon Sugar Muffin Mix. “There’s a lot of different things you can do with the product. We just had a contest and someone made a bundt cake with the muffin mix, and it was delicious,” Zbinovec said. “People do like to try new things. It depends on how venturesome they are,” she added. “A lot of times what we’ll see is people tweaking the recipe a little bit – adding nuts, maybe a glaze. It gives the consumer a chance to play with it a little bit and make it the flavors that their family likes, whatever it might be.”
Among Friends baking mixes are distributed nationwide. They retail for $4.99 to $5.99.