Starting from scratch: Iowa State students create new food products for industry

Food Science Class 1

The reaction to that first bite is often the most telling as students work to find the right taste and texture. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger image)

AMES, Iowa – An ice cream maker churns in the corner of the small test kitchen while a tray of candied walnuts cools on top of the stove. Scales, measuring cups and an unusual mix of ingredients clutter the countertop, as students dressed in white lab coats and hairnets work to perfect their creations.

It’s a scene repeated throughout the food science labs in Iowa State University’s MacKay Hall. Students in this food product development class will spend hours throughout the semester chopping, blending and baking, carefully recording every modification in their lab books. By the end of the semester, they will have formulated a product, tested its shelf life and consumer appeal, and developed packaging and nutrition labels to get the product ready for store shelves.

All the sights, sounds and smells inside the lab are really no different than the experimentation taking place inside test kitchens of major food companies. And like any company, the 35 students are here to create a new, original food item that will hopefully be a hit with consumers. The class structure gives students complete creative freedom. But with no recipe to follow, the class involves a lot of trial and error in the kitchen.

“Some of the products are more complicated and take more time to develop,” said Ken Prusa, a professor of food science and human nutrition. “The biggest challenge for students is setting a gold standard and getting enough consumer feedback to prove that it’s a viable product.”

Setting that standard can be a real test of the taste buds. Prusa and Lester Wilson, a University Professor of food science and human nutrition, oversee the nine student teams in the class. The two spend a lot of time sampling and offering feedback on texture, flavor and overall appearance. Each team must conduct consumer research on the product to develop that gold standard – a process that requires a thick skin.    

“You’d rather have them be mean, to get their honest opinion,” said Aaron Blakely, a graduate student in meat science. “That’s how we’re going to improve the product.”

Food Science Class 4

Students document every modification to the recipe in their lab books as they work on setting a gold standard for their product. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger image)

Change is all part of the process   

Those candied walnuts cooling on the stove added a sweet crunch to the banana-nut ice cream Cody Platta, a junior majoring in food science, and his teammates planned to market. The flavors blended nicely in the cool, creamy texture, but by the end of the semester the walnuts were nixed after the team opted to make their product, Avoconana, a frozen treat on a stick, instead of an ice cream.

Such changes and tweaks are not unusual, once students move from the formulation process to scale-up and commercialization. Instead of using common household ingredients for the final product, students must use industrial ingredients for convenience and cost. But switching to powdered ingredients, such as dried eggs, tends to change the taste, texture or consistency, forcing students to rework the product.  

“What you set out for at the beginning of the class is not what you get in the end,” Platta said. “You have to be open to change, and to get a product out the door you have to make some sacrifices.”

To maintain a nutty flavor, the team replaced the walnuts with coconut milk. One sacrifice the team hoped to avoid was finding an alternative for the product’s key ingredient – fresh avocados. The team wanted to use avocados for a dairy-free alternative and healthful fat substitute.   

After experimenting with a pureed avocado product – that students did not initially realize was pre-seasoned with salt and garlic – they found a way to stick with fresh avocados. The frozen treat, made of avocado, coconut and banana, boasts 2 grams of fiber and is gluten free. Scale-up can be a frustrating process. There are challenges every year, but it is valuable real-world experience for students.

“Our students, as they say, can hit the road running, because they’ve been through it all in this class. They know how to develop a product, manage safety and quality control, fill a container and create a legal package – everything that goes into making a product,” Wilson said. “Within one semester they’ve made products that are ready to go to the store.”

It’s not just a class, it’s a company

To give students true ownership of their products, Prusa and Wilson turned the class into a company called Dyscovry Foods Inc. The company has a board of directors, made up of professionals in the food industry, which provides feedback and guidance. Students presented their products to the board in February to get the green light to move forward.

Food Science Class 3

Students experiment with dried, fresh or powdered ingredients to see how it affects taste, texture and cost. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger image)

They will make a final presentation to the board at the end of the semester with the hope that a company will pick up their product. It’s happened before, but it doesn’t have to happen for the class to be a success.

“When someone asks me how many successful products we produce in a year, I always tell them it depends on how many students are in the class. This year, we’ll have 35 successful products coming out of this class,” Prusa said.

Prusa and Wilson have taught the class for more than 10 years. They say it would not be possible without the support of the board and multiple companies that help with everything from ingredients to use of industrial kitchens.

Other products developed this semester include an apple and sweet potato snack, pancake puffs with strawberry filling, a breakfast bar made with granola and frozen berry Greek yogurt, veggie chips served with a berry salsa, a bacon cookie topped with maple ice cream and chocolate drizzle, a quinoa and cheese side dish, a multigrain side dish with oats, barley and quinoa, and a savory breakfast roll with egg, cheese and lentils.