Students create unique food products from scratch

Students involved with the U’s food product development teams will be presenting at a national completion in June.

Tucked away in a food lab in McNeal Hall where fruit filling meets microbiology, students from the University of Minnesota work with blenders and calculators to create an energy bar for an upcoming national competition. The students, members of one of the three food product development teams at the University, are working to develop the energy bar for the competition at the Institute of Food TechnologistsâÄô national conference, which will be held in early June in Anaheim, Calif. The conference is expected to draw about 20,000 food scientists, 1,000 of which are students, Kristin Flesch, a program manager for the Institute of Food Technologists, or IFT, said. As part of the conference, there will be three different competitions, each with different rules, for student-developed food products. Flesch said student food development competitions have been sponsored in one form or another by the IFT since the mid 1970s. This will be the third consecutive year the University will be sending teams to the competitions. The team last year finished third overall. Led by Jackie Koch and Ashley Bents, this yearâÄôs team of 15 undergraduate and graduate students began brainstorming ideas for their product back in October. The group looked at trends in the food industry when brainstorming and decided to design a product aimed at a growing market for energy foods and drinks, Bents, a food science and nutrition senior, said. After identifying what type of product they wanted to make, the students set to designing and creating their product. The teamâÄôs product, called Inertia, has a crispy wafer exterior, a fruit filling and chocolate coating on the bottom. The bar will also contain guarana, a naturally occurring substance with twice the caffeine found in coffee beans, which will provide the bar with its energy boost. The students submitted a proposal for their product to the IFT in February and are from one of six universities competing in their division at the competition. On Wednesday, team members were back in the lab working on refining and perfecting their product, a process that Koch said wonâÄôt be finished until the team has to present it in Anaheim. Students are responsible for designing, baking, packaging and presenting their product, Koch, a food science and nutrition senior, said, exposing team members to all stages of product development. In order to see the product to a tasty finish, team members are using math, chemistry and microbiology, in addition to their cooking skills, to create the perfect food. During production, the development team must take into account how a food tastes, how long it will stay fresh and how safe it is, Koch said. Making sure the exterior stays crispy has proven to be a particular challenge, she said, so the team paired up with a local business to get a metal mold to help make the product. âÄúWhen you pull it out of the mold, you hope it turns out, but you never know,âÄù Koch said. âÄúThe holy grail of food science is to make something crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.âÄù While keeping the exterior crunchy has proven to be challenging for the Inertia team, Catherine Lee said the food product development team she leads has been working on improving the flavors of their product. Lee, a food science and nutrition graduate student, is leading another team of students competing at the IFTâÄôs national conference in an event sponsored by Disney. A third team from the University will be competing in the Developing Solutions for Developing Countries food production competition, which asks students to design a food targeted at improving the quality of life in developing countries. The rules of the Disney competition require the food they create be targeted at children and contain a fruit or vegetable, Lee said, so the team is working on creating a french fry that uses vegetables besides potatoes. Lee said the competition provides students an introduction to the food product development industry and lets them pull together and apply a variety of different skills theyâÄôve learned throughout their coursework. âÄúYou learn a lot more about different ingredients and how to approach creating a product, which you donâÄôt necessarily get in classes,âÄù she said. Food science and nutrition professor Tonya Schoenfuss said students often donâÄôt understand the overall process when they enter the food product development industry. While classes at the University teach skills related to food product development, there is no class to apply all those skills towards creating a product, something Schoenfuss, who spent 11 years working in product development at General Mills and is helping advise this yearâÄôs teams, said could be a beneficial addition to the curriculum. With about six weeks left before final proposals are submitted, team members working on the Inertia energy bar are spending their time in the lab adjusting formulas and trying out new flavors in hopes of getting the right combination of taste and texture for their product. Although none of the bars they were working on Wednesday turned out, the team is still working out kinks with their new mold. Koch said theyâÄôll be back in the lab the next day, trying new combinations of ingredients and seeing what works best. âÄúThatâÄôs science,âÄù she said.