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The Center for Food Innovation helps companies improve nutritional value of their food products

When it comes to French fries, most people agree--it's all about the texture. That's why food companies are lining up to have their fries analyzed by staff of the Center for Food Innovation (CFI) at Penn State.

"The center is equipped to test combinations of potatoes and oils with the goal of creating the perfect fry--one that has not only great texture and taste, but also absorbs less oil, thereby reducing the overall calorie content," says Peter Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management and director of the CFI.

Established in 2003, the CFI aims to help companies--especially those based in Pennsylvania--to create more healthful foods. Specifically, its staff conducts research in the areas of new product development, nutrition and health, food safety, culinary science, ergonomics, marketing, and consumer behavior. Customers have included McCormick, Cargill, Nestle, Olive Garden Italian Restaurants, Sheetz, Snyder's of Hanover, Dairy Queen, and numerous others.

The Perfect Fry

In the research kitchen of the CFI, the bright-yellow machine lies in wait as the research technician carefully places a golden wedge of potato onto a disk at the machine's front. The texture analyzer whirs to life as the disk rises, gently compressing the fry against another disk. Data, indicating the fry's firmness, appear on the screen of an adjacent computer.

Bordi explains that to get perfectly firm French fries, you must match up particular grades of potato with particular grades of oil. "A few years ago," he says, "Chick-fil-A came to us wanting to use the peanut oil that they use to fry their chicken to make their waffle fries. To be honest, the fries were not very good. So we tested a canola oil blend that makes them really good. There are hundreds of possible combinations of potato and oil, and it takes research to find the best one."

For Cargill, alone, the CFI has performed over 60 oil tests. "In the first really big year, we fried over 36,000 pounds of fries developing oil for Cargill; we also fried over 30,000 dozen doughnuts working to develop trans-fat free oils," says Bordi, who notes that the School of Hospitality Management at Penn State is the only such school in the United States to run a center like CFI.

Bordi says that the services the center provides enable companies to make unbiased improvements to their foods. "We do the research blindly," he says. "So in the case of oils, we don't know what they are when we're testing them. With Cargill, for example, we unveil the oils together and then we match up the codes to find out what's what. We're great as a team because we look at the issue from different perspectives."

According to Bordi, laboratory research, such as the conducted using the texture analyzer, is just one service that the CFI provides. The center also has the ability to bring together groups of people to taste various products.

Healthful Snacks

In January of 2012, as part of a project with Knouse Foods, researchers from the CFI lugged boxes of applesauce and plastic cups into the lobby of a local middle school. They set up a folding table and filled cups with applesauce, each flavored with a fruit (either tropical, mixed berry, or strawberry-banana flavors) and a vegetable (carrots and/or cucumbers).

One hundred and six 7th graders lined up to taste the applesauces. Each one was given all three flavors and asked to rate them based on overall liking, overall appearance, appearance of texture, appearance of color, taste, mouth feel, amount of fruit flavor, and amount of sweetness. The team repeated the test with 120 adults on the Penn State University Park Campus.

"We found that both the adults and children rated all of the applesauce flavors favorably, suggesting that bringing such products to market could be an effective method for helping adults and children consume more fruits and vegetables," says Bordi.

The study was published in the April 2013 issue of the journal Food and Nutrition Sciences.

In a new project with Disney, CFI staff members are developing some healthful snack foods for the company's resorts. "We're working on some products--such s gummy bears that are all-natural and contain 50-percent less sugar--that you may perceive as junk, but we're making them healthier," says Bordi. "You children are happy and you are happy."

A Chocolate Milk for All Occasions

Making foods more healthful for children is the goal of a project that began in 2012 with Ron Deis, director of global sweetener development at Ingredion Incorporated.

"Milk is an important product for children nutritionally," says Deis. "But it is well established that they prefer chocolate milk on the market today over white milk. Unfortunately, the chocolate milk on the market today can contain 24 to 35 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, whereas white milk contains about 12 grams of sugar (from lactose) per 8-ounce serving. Our goal was to use natural sweeteners to create a chocolate milk with significantly lower sugar content that maintains a taste in parity with a full-sugar product. Because of CFI's activity in School Lunch Program projects, we were able to test this with 7th graders, and we actually established a preference for the lower sugar product using stevia, a natural high-potency sweetener.

According to Bordi, this research was published in the Journal of Culinary Science and Technology in January 2014.

Chocolate milk also was the focus of a CFI project conducted in collaboration with the Penn State football team. The aim of this project was to provide the players with a natural food supplement as opposed to an artificial supplement for use in recovering from intense workouts.

"We wanted to build and expand on a great source of calories our student athletes already enjoy and we knew they would readily consume," says Tim Bream '83 H P E, director of Athletic Training Services and head football athletic trainer. "Once the proper types of proteins was identified and the appropriate proportion of proteins-per-serving, based on the NCAA nutritional guidelines, was formulated, it was taste-tested by our athletes.

today, Penn State student athletes in many of the varsity sports regularly consume the drink, which is made by the Penn State Creamery.

Helping Local Companies

Bordi's goal of helping local organizations doesn't stop with Penn State Athletics. A major component of the CFI's mission is to provide assistance to Pennsylvania-based companies.

"I grew up in Scranton, which is heavily dependent on coal mining and railroads at the time," he says. "As a kid, I remember how great it was, but now you see these companies struggle and many go out of business. I think it's important to help Pennsylvania's companies stay in business."

One of those Pennsylvania companies is Benzel's Pretzel Bakery in Altoona. "We have been working with Penn State well over a year now reformulating a product for a specific customer type," says Ann Benzel, owner. "While I cannot go into detail, I can say that it relates to providing a health, desirable snack for kids and adults. Working with the CFI at Penn State makes it easier to step out of your comfort zone and make changes that you are sometimes reluctant to make. Their sensory-based studies have been valuable tools in defining and understanding consumer needs and are essential in targeted product design and development."

Keith Boston--who is currently the director of food service as Cumberland Farms, Inc., but who began working with the CFI when he worked at Sheetz--agrees.

"The CFI has been an important gate keeper for my product development for the past ten years," he says. "It lets me give empirical feedback to my vendors or my potential vendors and takes all subjectivity out of it. for me, Pete has become a trusted resource. He keeps me abreast of what's happening in foodservice over the next twenty years. He looks deep into the future for me so I can take care of the near future. I have been satisfied in every way with our relationship and have seen the sophistication of both the testing and the data get richer and richer every year."

Not only does the CFI aim to help local companies with their food products, but it also seeks out opportunities to partner with those that do not produce food. For example, the center's sensory laboratory was designed, built, and outfitted by InterMetro, a company based in Wilkes-Barre.

We work with an enormous amount of small- to middle-sized companies, with 100 employees or less," says Bordi. "Most of them don't have facilities where they can do sensory work. We have that here. We also have a great variety of people that we can bring in to taste-test foods. We're able to help these companies, and that is important.