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Students invent foods, shape future of food product development industry

Take a stroll down any grocery store aisle and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of food and beverage products for sale. Now consider that for each of those items, an average of 10 comparable items was developed but didn’t make the cut. Then consider the teams of scientists behind the development of every one of those products at hundreds of food production companies across the world.

What you have is an industry of professionals working to ensure that the food and beverage products that do make it to grocery store shelves are nutritionally sound, taste (and smell) good, will sell well, and are microbiologically safe.

   

Three students from the Department of Food Science and Technology will enter a recipe they created called Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars into a national contest. From left are Raul Saucedo, Matt Boling, and Margo Duckson. Three students from the Department of Food Science and Technology will enter a recipe they created called Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars into a national contest. From left are Raul Saucedo, Matt Boling, and Margo Duckson.

“This is what product development is all about,” said Professor Sean F. O’Keefe, who teaches product development in the Department of Food Science and Technology in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

In a Sensory Evaluation Laboratory/kitchen being operated by three graduate students producing multiple batches of Albert's Quinoa Cookie Bars, you might expect to find a mess of ingredients, scales, bowls, mixers, and the like. But food science and technology doctoral students Margo Duckson of Sanford, N.C., and Raul Saucedo of Panama City, Panama, and master’s student Matt Boling of Blacksburg, Va., have their process down to a science — literally. 

They have baked more than 74 batches of their cookie bars since they started developing the product at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year. In the process, they’ve used more than 32 pounds of ingredients and logged nearly 200 hours in the lab.

Known as the Danisco team to their fellow Food Science and Technology students and professors, the trio has developed a food product that could one day hit grocery store shelves nationwide. O'Keefe serves as the team’s adviser.

The students are competing in the Danisco Knowledge Award Competition, which comes with $10,000 cash prize for the first-place team. Danisco, which is owned by DuPont, is a leading manufacturer of food product ingredients.

   

Margo Duckson pours a heated liquid mixture into the dry ingredient mixture for a part of the middle layer of Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars. Margo Duckson pours a heated liquid mixture into the dry ingredients for a part of the middle layer of Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars.

The group glides effortlessly around the kitchen, moving with a level of precision that comes from lots of practice, heavy deliberation, and hard work. 

The recipe, which calls for 23 ingredients, including five Danisco products, takes about 50 minutes to make. That includes 20 minutes to measure and prep, 15 minutes to bake the crust, eight minutes to bake the topping onto the crust, and six minutes to make the filling and put the final product together. 

It takes about 10 minutes for the bars to cool, then the team puts them to the ultimate test: how do they look and taste?

Too much butter in the bottom crust? No problem. Team members start over again with another batch, this time using 5 fewer grams of butter.

Not enough crunch when you bite into them? Again, the group starts over, this time modifying the recipe.

In late April, team members will make their final batch of Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars. They will ship it overnight and must make sure the product has a two-week shelf life.

Since they began working together to develop the product in September 2011, the product has evolved from a cookie bar into a gluten-free cookie/granola bar with a pistachio cream filling that uses white, red, and black quinoa.

The team worked on its product all year to meet the submission deadline in late April 2012. In May 2012, six Danisco food specialists will evaluate the contest entries and choose the top 12 finalists, using a point system. Then, a panel of six product development specialists will judge the finalists for specific criteria — including product marketability and originality — and select the top three. In this competition, the report is worth two-thirds of the total available points.

   

Raul Saucedo mixes the ingredients together for the crust using a food processor, while Margo Duckson prepares crust for baking. Raul Saucedo mixes the ingredients together for the crust using a food processor, while Margo Duckson prepares crust for baking.

“The best idea in the world, if not backed up by a really good report, will not go anywhere,” O’Keefe said.

With several previous Danisco awards to its credit, this year’s team hopes to bring home a first-place win.

Duckson led the 2011 Danisco team to a second-place victory for its product, Black Turtle Brownie Mix, a gluten-free brownie mix that is high in fiber, low in fat, and low in calories. The mix was made from black bean flour and included a packet of dulce de leche for a Latin American flavor twist.

Multimedia: Food science and technology students

  • See a photo gallery of the 2012 team members making Albert’s Quinoa Cookie Bars.
  • See a video of the 2010 team

About the department

    The Department of Food Science and Technology logo is stitched on lab coats.

The mission of the Department of Food Science and Technology is to be a leader in contributing to food quality, safety, marketability, and availability through excellence in teaching, research, and Extension.

  • About 190 students are enrolled in the department, which boasts a number of graduates who have become high-profile officials in the food industry.
  • Although many undergraduate students go on to pursue graduate degrees before entering the workforce, 100 percent of students who graduate from the department go on to work in the food or food processing fields.
  • Virginia Tech’s Food Science and Technology Department is the only such program in the state.

Recent competition wins

Virginia Tech food science and technology students have done well in several food product development competitions in recent years:

  • 2011: Danisco Knowledge Award, second place, Black Turtle Brownie Mix (gluten-free brownie mix that is high in fiber, low in fat and low in calories).
  • 2010: Institute of Food Technologists, fourth place, Gluten-Eze (gluten-free pie crust made from quinoa flour that is rich in protein and low in sodium).
  • 2009: Virginia Tech received a patent on a product developed by a team of students in 2009. "Spice n' Easy" generated significant interest from several spice/flavoring companies across the country. When inserted into meat, the flavor spikes quickly and easily dissolve, marinating the meat without the wait of a traditional marinade.
  • 2008: Danisco Knowledge Award, third place, Cravioli (a chocolate dessert ravioli with raspberry and vanilla cream sauces).
  • 2008: Institute of Food Technologists, fourth place, Banana Splitters (frozen bite-sized slices of banana filled with creamy chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry nonfat frozen yogurt and coated in dark chocolate).

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