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. cancer researchers, was looking for a food manufacturer to produce nutritional products based on what they saw was a gaping need. Patients undergoing chemotherapy tend to experience extreme fatigue, unintentional weight loss and suppressed appetite and energy.

"You feel like you finished the New York marathon and have no energy to cook," said Dr. 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 under a new brand called Vital Cuisine.

The ready-to-make meals are easy for fatigued patients to make whenever their appetite allows and are packed with protein, calories and help with hydration — which have been identified as problem areas during treatment.

These new products for cancer patients are under the purview of Hormel Health Labs, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp. formed in 1994 that sells to the health care market. Its portfolio includes foods designed for people with swallowing difficulty, dietary restrictions and other conditions that chiefly affect the elderly.

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 being made about the cancer-fighting nature of certain foods, yet a dearth of nutritive foods suitable for those in the middle of treatment.

Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of food purveyor Delaware North and owner of the Boston Bruins, funded a new study by the Cancer Nutrition Consortium to look for the specific needs these patients face.

By the time Hormel entered the picture, this consortium — made up of private organizations and medical centers like Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, Cedar-Sinai 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 health care providers and patients. We are just trying to make an impact."

Once the partnership formed, the products took months of research and development between Hormel headquarters 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, and the consortium offered the nutritional framework.

The full line launched in July and is being sold online. Hormel, through the Hormel Institute — a nonprofit cancer research center located across the parking lot from Hormel's headquarters that receives considerable funding from the food company — and the consortium are relying on their contacts in health care to spread news of the product by word of mouth.

"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."

But Hormel said it wouldn't do it if there wasn't a real need and viable business ­proposition.

"It's a very different sell for us. People say, 'Why Hormel?' And we say, `Well, why not?' We are providing good nutrition, quality products, and convenience," Nellermoe said.

Moskowitz said his patients have all responded favorably to the Vital Cuisine products since their release. "They are delighted to have these products," 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 — are available online for about $19. A four-pack of protein shakes is being sold for about $14 and seven whey-protein drink mix packets are being sold for about $10.

The long-term goal is to get the products into drugstore and big-box retail chains, so patients have a convenient pickup location.

"But the problem is, every inch of shelf space is precious to retailers. It's a niche product and that's the overriding problem," Moskowitz said. "We have to avail ourselves to corporate goodwill and hope a grocery store or drugstore gives us some shelf space."

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767