Foods of the future

by Jake Brennan, BA’97

Grab the ice cream out of your freezer. Pop a spoonful in your mouth. Now, really pay attention. Is it sweet enough? Too sweet? The sour notes – are they smooth, or spiky? How about the texture?

Now, imagine this is your job. Performing this delectable work, or analyzing its results, is a key element in Food Science, a field that combines chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition, microbiology, engineering and statistics to deliver appealing products. With the market for quick-prep foods growing by the day, this mixed discipline is taking off, and nowhere faster than in the Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry Department at Macdonald Campus.

“Consumers have become more demanding,” says Professor Salwa Karboune, “Now, food has to be safe and healthy, but consumers want it to taste and look good, too.” Demanding student-consumers are packing her Food Product Development class more every year.

Developing a new food is the class’s all-consuming main course. Small student groups start by targeting a product platform – ice cream, for example. They verify that there is a market niche to be filled, present their idea to classmates, vote on the best three proposals and formulate prototypes. Then come the all-important taste tests, known as “sensory evaluations,” to narrow it down to a final formulation.

Past in-class winners have included a cheese analog made of soy, a high-protein muffin, a bagel already filled with cheese, and a yogurt cup paired with an oat bar for dipping, a portable breakfast substitute for cereal and milk that’s both pre- and pro-biotic. “From year to year, the products are getting better in terms of innovation, taste and quality,” says Karboune.

The whole process, from proposal to product, takes food companies one to three years. Karboune’s class accomplishes it in a semester. It’s demanding, but fascinating, explains her PhD student, Amanda Waglay, BSc(FSc)’10.

“It’s so all-encompassing and applied. You can take a product from the lab bench to a pilot scale and then actually deal with the consumer within one project,” she says.

While nutrition and safety can be objectively engineered, consumer appeal, which ultimately makes or breaks a product, must be taste-bud tested. Trained tasting panelists provide more useful guidance in the initial formulation stages, says Waglay. “But when you want to know what a consumer would taste, an untrained, bigger panel is more comparable to a consumer.”

Managing multiple groups of 60-100 student tasters, Waglay ran the sensory evaluation testing both for McGill’s shelf-stable frozen dessert, a product that did well in a recent North American competition, and for the high-protein flour made from crickets that won the $1-million Hult Prize last year. Respondents graded the products on smell, taste, texture, mouth feel (how texture breaks down), after taste and overall liking to isolate a winning formula.

Waglay is currently sensory testing her own PhD project – isolating potato proteins, which are in many ways healthier than animal proteins, and don’t carry any animal-rights or religious stigma.

“Sensory evaluation is a science in itself,” explains Karboune. “We’re optimizing the product from the consumer’s perspective, not an expert’s, an approach I hope the students take away with them.”

But Karboune’s main goal? “To train students in all aspects of product development – and pass along my passion.”

A sweet treat with a twist

This year, McGill’s shelf-stable frozen dessert, the winning tasty treat from Salwa Karboune’s class, finished third in the prestigious Food Product Development Competition run by the U.S.-based Institute of Food Technologist Students’ Association.

The dessert can be stored at room temperature, obviating refrigeration and its attendant hassles at every step from production plant to the consumer’s home. Simply open the container to let air in, throw it in your freezer and enjoy two hours later.

Air exposure activates nitrous oxide, generating tiny bubbles that help create a light, creamy texture rather than a syrupy popsicle in a bucket. The creators engineered its smooth flavour and such factors as freezing and melting rates by sensory testing the perfect combination of natural sugars.

It was the first time a Canadian team has even qualified for the IFT finals in over a quarter century. Seasoned U.S. teams were more accustomed to the intense competition, says Karboune, the team’s supervisor. “I saw our team grow during these three days. Their commitment was immense.”

The next step for the development team: finding an investor to bring the product to market.