WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Where Do Processed Foods Come From?

Jun 17, 2015

The packaged foods found in supermarkets, convenience stores and vending machines are full of ingredients you often cannot pronounce.  They've been carefully developed and tested in a lab and likely have been shipped long distances. They can hold up to weeks or even months on the shelf.

But most of them began with fresh food you might cook with at home.

A class at Iowa State University encourages students to invent a new food product and demonstrate how they would take it to the marketplace. Their experience offers a window into how companies dream up, formulate and market new foods.

Class begins with brainstorming. Senior Nathan Davis tries to get his group excited about a new ingredient.

“I’m thinking about cricket flour,” he says. Everything is on the table and around the laboratory kitchens students flip through industry journals for ideas.

When the students have a product they like, they give out samples to collect data about what people think of it. This is an early sample of Abrasa hot sauce.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

By the end of the semester, each group will present a packaged, tested, shelf-stable or frozen item. Ultimately, Davis’ group decides against insect protein.

“It’d be a little ahead of its time,” Davis said, though he points out it’s a growing trend. He and the three other students he’s working with have settled on something they say should appeal to Millennials, who they note are a large, diverse segment of consumers.  "What we’re working on now is like a Mexican version of Sriracha sauce,” he said on a January day in the lab.

First, they mix up something from common ingredients such as fresh and canned peppers, spices, garlic and limes.  When they come up with a recipe they like, they conduct early market research.

“They have to show us data from the consumers that they have a viable product that will differentiate themselves in the marketplace,” said Ken Prusa, the professor who co-teaches the course with two other food science faculty members.

Presentation matters when the students offer their products to a panel of food industry professionals. The Abrasa hot sauce is served straight-up and diluted with sour cream.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

At the semester mid-point, the students have to present their product to a panel of food industry professionals. Prusa and his colleagues run the class as though it is a company. The panelists are referred to as board members and the students are a research and development team who must justify their creation to their company’s board of directors.

The hot sauce group mixes up a batch of their product and serves it to the panelists with chips for dipping.

“We have a brand new product from our lab today for you called Abrasa,” Davis says, as his group begins their Power Point presentation. In 20 minutes they explain their ingredients, their market niche, the results of their consumer tests and their plans for how to produce the same sauce at a commercial scale. 

Some student groups are sent away from the board meeting with suggestions for radically changing their products. Not Abrasa—it gets a green-light from the panel.

But this is not a cooking or recipe development class. It’s food science. To generate a large quantity of their sauce and package it for shipping and retail, they need a lot more than flavor and culinary skill.

“They move from fresh ingredients to industrial ingredients in scale up,” said Lester Wilson, another of the course’s professors. “Also, they do larger batches just like you would in industry.”

When Wilson talks about industrial ingredients he’s referring to various starches, stabilizers, bitter maskers and other additives. These are elements that will keep a product looking, smelling and tasting right as it endures packaging, shipping and perhaps weeks on a shelf or in a freezer.

He’s also talking about the quantity and format an ingredient comes in. Dried, frozen or canned ingredients are typically cheaper than fresh, and available readily in large quantities. They can also behave differently than fresh ingredients, sometimes giving the developers more options for how to generate a certain taste or texture.

Working in a commercial kitchen, Nathan Davis and Emily Hurban mix together the industrial ingredients for their hot sauce.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

The students have to identify the possible problems for their product and how they can address them. All the while, they must keep in mind the costs of production relative to how much they could sell the product for and also what sort of packaging they plan to use.

“As often happens when you scale up from just a benchtop or a kitchen scale to a much larger scale,” Wilson says, “`stuff’ happens.”   

On an April afternoon, the Abrasa group assembles in the commercial kitchen of a restaurant on campus. It’s their one chance to “scale up” and they’ve already overcome some challenges.

“We had been getting fresh poblanos, fire-roasting them ourselves, and then grinding them up,” said Emily Hurban, another student in the Abrasa group.

That isn’t practical for scaling up, both because of the cost and the quantity they need.

Instead, they use a food processor to grind up individually flash-frozen, fire-roasted poblano peppers. Meanwhile, they’ve got No. 10 cans of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, which are supposed to be the same as the smaller cans they had been using. They pour the chipotles into a sieve and push them through with a long-handled spoon. Still, it’s clear they’re not identical to the kind the students used in the smaller batches of sauce.

When all the ingredients are mixed together they calculate how much of the additives they need. Potassium sorbate, xanthan gum and carrageenan gum should keep the product from separating and ensure it stays liquid.

They have 8-ounce, clear plastic, squirt-top bottles with black lids. But after they fill and seal the containers, they discover an unwelcome surprise.

“We had some issues with gelling,” Davis said. The product is so gelatinous it won’t move at all within the bottles. “It’s safe to eat… it’s just the squirting.”

Of course, that matters when you’re trying to sell a squeeze-top bottle, not just impress your friends with a new hot sauce. That’s not to say the product is a flop. Lester Wilson says mistakes, happenstance and cast-offs all contribute to the products we eventually come to know.

“We always thought that whey was a by-product” of cheese production, he says, “and what are you going to do with it? Well, somebody dried it down and concentrated the protein and now we have protein shakes and whey protein bars.”

And countless other food products whose origins may be a mystery to all but their inventors.