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Perspective On: A Food Testing Lab

The role of food labs in the development of new flavours, textures and products.

by Bernard B. Tulsi

The current economic woes seem to be slimming down U.S. food consumption. In February 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that overall expenditures on food in the country were declining. The Bureau of Economic Analysis of the Department of Commerce statistics showed that consumers spent 3.7 percent less on food purchases in the fourth quarter of 2008 versus the third quarter of that year. That was the deepest single decline since the government started tracking total food expenditures more than 60 years ago

In Developing New Food Products for a Changing Marketplace (CRC Press), Aaron Brody and John Lord noted that volume growth in the U.S. food industry has a direct relationship to the countrys relatively slow population increase. Data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture give a sense of the size of this growth: in 2008, the total expenditure on all foods consumed in the country was $1,165.3 billion, or 3.3 percent more than the $1,128.0 billion spent on food purchases in 2007.

Despite its slower growth relative to other sectors, the food industry must sustain a steady stream of changes to keep up with the demands for new and different food products to satisfy the needs of a changing populationone that is aging and becoming more ethnically diverse and to accommodate a broader range of food choices, compliments of globalization. To be sure, some changes may even be attributable to the tough economy. For example, the Private Label Manufacturers Association puts U.S. sales of private label food products at $82.9 billion in 2008, a 10 percent increase over 2007. During that same period, more expensive branded food products increased by just 2.8 percent, reaching total 2008 sales of $416.6 billion.

The nostalgic associations with farm and kitchen have obscured some of the sophistication inherent in food processing. In fact, the food industrys structure adds to a general sense that its business entities are small and simple. By the year 2000, most of the 15,000 food processing plants in the United States were small and had fewer than 20 workers. Yet, in both size and scope, food plants are numbered among the largest factories, irrespective of industry.

As a result, food processing ranks among the most complex industrial operations in the world today. Scores of raw and semiprocessed foods must be assembled to finish a given processed food, and each input likely has a unique procurement system. Once finished, the typical food or beverage is distributed through multiple channels, each of which has special business practices, and, all the while, new products are being fashioned and introduced into the network to satisfy the almost insatiable demands of an ever-widening consumer population, wrote Brody and Lord in Developing New Food Products for a Changing Marketplace.

There seems to be a constant imperative to develop and offer more and different products for an evolving marketplace, while complying with the fundamental underlying requirements of quality, safety, consumer satisfaction and economics. Over the years, the food laboratory has become an established and invaluable part of that process.

A case in point is high-pressure processing, which has engaged the attention of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) for at least the past decade. The NCFST is a collaborative association formed jointly by the Food and Drug Administration and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Most of its 45 members are engaged in food manufacturing, packaging, flavoring and ingredients, and the development of food testing equipment. In addition to a variety of food safety and nutritional research initiatives, the NCFST, which has been in operation for about 20 years now, has engineering and packaging groups that work to develop better ways to enhance the quality of processed food.

One of our claims to fame here has been high-pressure processing, says Jack Cappozo, laboratory director at the NCFST. This entails taking foods that can withstand pressure (i.e., they are not deformed by it) and subjecting them to pressures ranging from 80,000 to 200,000 psi, thereby destroying bacteria. Among other subjects, Cappozos work focuses on the nutritional quality of fruit juices and purees that have been subjected to high-pressure processing. Some of his projects include assessing the antioxidant qualities of produce such as tomatoes and strawberries, which may play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease and obesity, among other diseases, and help to improve quality of life.

Cappozo joined the center about two years ago after 19 years with Con- Agra Foods. In his last five years with the food giant, he headed the chemistry group in ConAgras Omaha operations, focusing on nutritional, flavor and texture analyses. Flavor is a key characteristic of category foods, and the goal was to understand the brand integrity of a product based on its flavor signatures, says Cappozo.

So we did GC/mass spectrometry analyses to characterize particular brands of food, such as Reddi-wip topping, Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Hunts tomato brands, to figure out their signature flavors. This was not patentable, but it was sensitive work in that we tried to protect our products formulations with respect to the flavor portions the company used to develop them, Cappozo continues.

It is fairly common now for the food industry to use GC and GC/MS analytical instrumentation not only for flavor analysis but also for a range of safety testing, according to Joe Weitzel, Americas food segment manager, Chemical Analysis Solutions (CAS), Agilent Technologies.

Today, Agilent offers a comprehensive portfolio of analytical-grade instruments, quality-certified consumables and software solutions aimed at helping food scientists improve productivity, contain costs and remain compliant with the rapidly changing regulatory requirements.

Among Agilents offerings to the food sector are its LC, LC/MS and LC/MS/MS systems that offer speed, resolving power and simplified sample preparation for sensitive target compound analyses, and more effective identification of unknowns. Agilents 1200 Rapid Resolution LC reduces run times to seconds, and the TOF, Q-TOF, QQQ and Ion Trap MS systems offer high-level performance around the clock, according to Weitzel.

The companys ICP-MS is emerging as the new standard for highproductivity elemental analysis. It offers rapid multi-element analysis at trace levels and has the ability to remove interferences, according to company literature on the ICP-MS. The company also currently offers the 2100 bioanalyzer and Lab-ona- Chip bioassays, which measure protein or nucleic acid contents of minute samples for food speciation, identification and allergen testing.

While food labs have a powerful arsenal of analytical instrumentation and tools to analyze and characterize flavors, the development and manufacture of flavors reside squarely in specialized flavor houses. One of the leaders in this field, International Flavors and Fragrances, was founded in 1958 and has current annual sales of more than $2 billion. About two years ago, Givaudan emerged as the worlds largest company in flavor and fragrance. It started out as a perfumery company in 1895 and today has more than 8,000 workers. Other leading flavor companies include Firmenich in Switzerland, and Symrise, which is headquartered Germany.

The flavor houses make and sell flavors to food manufacturers, which, in turn, apply them to their products at certain intensities, according to Cappozo. We use chemistry and GC/MS to measure and characterize flavors, such as roasted, savory, and good aroma, among others, he says. In general, food flavorings fall into one of three broad classes: natural, nature-identical, and artificial.

It is also important to look for off flavors, he says. In general, flavors in food are quite stable, and it is the off flavors that tend to grow and enhance themselves. For example, the oxidation of fats and other substances causes an increase in off flavors. Identifying them is important in ensuring that they do not overwhelm products and leave a bad perception, according to Cappozo.

In a real sense, there are two aspects to shelf life. There is always the microbial shelf life, and [then] there is the flavor aspect; that is, when does food go bad in terms of flavor? he says.

Turning to food texture, Cappozo says this is commonly measured with a probe-like device, the Instron Texture Analyzer. The probe is pushed into the food substance under investigation, such as solids, semisolids (such as chocolate) and liquids that have some degree of viscosity, such as honey or tomato products.

In solid foods, the goal is to characterize the bite. When an Instron probe is pushed into a hot dog, it will provide a sense of the force needed to bite into itand also a sense of the force needed for a second bite. Most people like hard bites because they mimic a naturalcasing hot dog.

There is a bad perception about a soft bite, which is often the result of adding too much water to the hot dog. The food business is always interested in finding out how much water can be added to a product, he says.

Cappozo says that food processing can be represented by a triangle consisting of food technologists, who use the specifications provided by flavor manufacturers to make several types (different flavor intensities) of a product; the sensory testing group, which is interested in figuring out the extent to which consumers like the product; and the food chemistry laboratory, which uses chromatography to make sure that flavors have the specified qualities and that they remain stable over time.

The creation of a new product or the application of changes to an existing product is generally initiated by marketing departments of food companies, which must constantly gauge what consumers want. Food companies have learned never try to force anything on the public, according to Cappozo. You never come up with anything and assume that it is so great that the public will just like it. It is necessary to go out and survey consumer reaction first.

Once marketing decides on a new product, the next step is to engage R&D. Specialist product developers within the R&D area generally get a number of people involved in the process. These include representatives from manufacturing, who will examine the feasibility of making the product. They will assess the equipment needs and try to get a basic understanding of the costs involved. Another key player is the procurement department, which tries to figure out what kinds of materials raw ingredients, packaging materials, etc.will be needed to make the product.

On top of these, the quality assurance department will weigh in and look into the feasibility of making the product from a safety standpoint, while assessing whether the product could be stored properly and how it will be stored. The quality team will also involve a microbiologist early on to figure out what kinds of microbial hurdles they may face with the new product. Such a product development team will also include the food chemistry laboratory once the product is formulated, to conduct proximate analyses of components such as fat, protein, moisture and ash, to ensure that the product is being made to the intended specifications.

Once the specifications are met, work will commence on flavor and fragrance analysis. Other areas will include analysis of sweetness (sugar analysis) and other key components.

Cappozo says that processed foods have generally been and are increasingly now being geared to deliver convenience. All the major packaged food manufacturers are interested in packaging flavorful foods that are safe and convenient, to meet the needs of busy people on the go.

On the equipment side, he says that in the future there will be a need for faster systemsequipment that delivers results not only in the testing area but in manufacturing as well.

Increasingly, food products are being looked at as a necessity for good health. How can health be improved by making food better? And that opens up the exciting world of functional foods with the right fats, antioxidants and other components that will help to reduce diseases, including heart conditions, diabetes and obesity. Food companies are aware of this, and they are trying to formulate foods that address those needsone of the most evident now is reduced serving sizes, he says.