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The food technologist’s role in menu R&D

To understand the food technologist’s role in the menu r&d process it’s important to understand what it means to be a food scientist, and what sort of background and training they have.

Food science includes microbiologists, chemists, nutritionists, engineers and sensory scientists, encompassing a veritable smorgasbord of ideas and technologies. All of these areas support the product development process and provide critical tools and direction for the menu R&D team.

The core fields of food science and their relevant areas to product development are:

  • Food microbiology: food safety, food quality, product shelf life
  • Food engineering and Processing: preservation, packaging, distribution, good manufacturing processes (GMPs)
  • Food chemistry/Biochemistry: ingredient formulation, flavoring chemistry, colorings, preservatives, functional ingredients
  • Nutrition: fortification, optimizing nutritional content, nutraceuticals
  • Sensory analysis: evaluation of perceptions of flavors, textures, appearance and other food attributes

By becoming familiar with these general areas, and the main issues associated with each, the members of the menu R&D team will be able to communicate development strategies more effectively and empathize with all stakeholders involved. When navigating through the often turbulent and competitive R&D environment, it’s necessary to maintain clear lines of communication with the various team members. The development process can change direction unexpectedly, and in these situations, it’s critical that all players are on the same page.

So let’s take a look at the field of food science and how it contributes to the menu R&D process.

Food Microbiology

Food microbiology is the study of the interaction of microorganisms with foods, the environment in which they are processed and prepared and the consumer. Food microbiology can involve the study of bacteria, molds, yeasts and viruses. Two major areas of study that are of particular importance to product development are food safety and food quality.

It’s important to distinguish between safety and quality when working with food technologists, as they mean two very different things. Food safety deals with pathogens in foods and preventing or “eradicating” them from foods. Eradicating is actually a lofty goal because it is nearly impossible to eliminate microorganisms from any food. However, many steps can be taken to slow their growth or inactivate them.

Not all microorganisms are harmful, though. Many are completely innocuous and some are obnoxious (but harmless), in that they cause spoilage in foods. Controlling spoilage of foods is one of the focuses of food quality. The nutrients in our food also support the growth of bacteria. The byproducts of their growth and activity result in “off” flavors such as bitterness, rancidity and fruity or fermented tastes and smells. The key to controlling food spoilage is trying to inactivate as many bacteria as you can, without destroying the quality of the food. There are a variety of approaches to doing this, involving various processing and formulation strategies. Pasteurization and packaging, for example, are common processing steps that play a major role in providing safe foods. Par-cooking and vacuum packaging in high barrier films will also serve as a quality preservation and safety optimization step.

When designing menu items for the modern restaurant kitchen, shelf life and partial preparation will be important for designing labor-saving strategies into an operation and ultimately driving down costs.

Food Processing and Engineering

There is a distinction between food engineers and processors: engineers develop the concepts and tools that processors use to turn raw ingredients into safe, long-lasting, value-added foods. Both understand how foods change as a result of heating, cooling, mixing, moisture removal, etc. The way in which an ingredient is processed can have a dramatic effect on the flavor, color, safety and shelf life of food. Controlling all of these factors is critical to developing foods that are convenient to distribute, consistent in quality and easy to prepare.

Pasteurization and packaging are the efforts of food processing and engineering experts, as is high-pressure processing (HPP) and its effect on the safety and quality of fresh fruit and vegetable juices. HPP is a non-thermal or “cold pasteurization” process developed to allow fruit and vegetable juices to be produced without any of the deleterious effects of thermal treatments, such as changes in flavor. The nutritional profile of the juices is unaltered, so fortification is not necessary. A natural, healthy, flavorful product can be produced thanks to process engineers.

The general wisdom is that processing foods detracts from their quality, but with HPP, it’s quite the opposite.

Food Chemistry

A basic grounding in food chemistry will help the menu R&D team member understand functionality of food components, how these different components interact in different products and how to formulate menu items or components of a menu item (a sauce, batter or souffle mix, for example).

Understanding the chemistry of food can be of vital importance during the development process. The activity of enzymes (a type of protein that speeds up reactions) is a good example. Adding the enzyme lactase to milk improves digestibility and opens up a whole spectrum of products that can be enjoyed by those who are lactose-intolerant. But the enzyme has an optimal activity under specific conditions (acidity, temperature), meaning it won’t survive certain types of processing conditions and formulations. A grounding in chemistry gives the product developer the knowledge to develop a product and a process that takes advantage of such compounds.

The chemical composition and activity of foods also is important to quality, safety and shelf life. Enzymes naturally found in foods can be resistant to thermal treatments. Enzymes like lipases, which break down fats, and proteases, which break down proteins, must be controlled during distribution and storage or else they will have a deleterious effect on flavor and texture. Other enzymes such as bromelin (from pineapple) and papain (papayas) have a tenderizing effect and can improve meat’s quality and flavor. By understanding how enzymes maintain their activity, food chemists can develop ingredients and processes that have improved quality and extended shelf life.

Nutrition

When it comes to nutrition, the food technologist will be largely concerned with the effects of processing, storage and preparation on the stability of nutrients.

Nutritional composition of foods and their effects on health and wellness are major drivers of consumer food choices and so a major concern for the R&D team. Not just specific nutrients like fat and carbohydrates, but the overall caloric content of foods plays a major role in human health.

In recent years, food scientists have put a major focus on identifying and characterizing the biological effects of so-called nutraceuticals and functional foods. Product developers are drawing on this research and working to incorporate these foods or their specific bioactive compounds into new products. Consumers are more educated in this area and are beginning to expect the same health benefits from their away-from-home dining experiences that they get from retail food.

Fortification is also crucial to product developers. “Vitamin blends” commonly added to retail products are expensive and highly “labile” (unstable). The point at which they are added during manufacturing will impact their final active concentration.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 required detailed nutritional labeling of all foods sold in grocery stores. The act does not include restaurants, but the knowledge consumers gain from retail purchases carries over to the restaurant. When developing menu items for a foodservice operation, it is important to take into account their nutritional composition. It’s not necessary to advertise an item’s nutritional profile, but consumers should be able to retrieve the information if they want.

The effects of processing, storage and preparation on foods is also of direct concern to new product and menu development. Food technologists may develop an HPP process that preserves the natural vitamin A content in an avocado puree. But if the resulting product is incorporated into a menu item that sits in a steam table or under a heating lamp for long, it is likely that the benefit would be lost.

Processing’s impact on quality and bioavailability (the extent to which a nutrient can be used in the body) of nutrients in foods is a controversial area. Nutritionists usually associate thermal processing with detrimental effects on quality, but this is not always the case. Research at Cornell University found that heating tomatoes raises the level of a cancer-fighting phytochemical called lycopene.

Sensory Science

Sensory science is the sub-field of food science that uses people to describe and evaluate flavors, textures, appearance and other food attributes. Sensory evaluation practices are integral to product developers. Sensory techniques can be used to narrow down concepts (pen and paper ideas for menu items) and choose protocepts (actual edible versions of the concepts), optimize a developing product and monitor and control quality of the finished product.

Products can be evaluated and optimized using a method known as quantitative descriptive analysis (QDA), in which a focus group defines the sensory attributes for a specific product and establishes numerical scores for these attributes. Establishing the appropriate measurement is of major importance, as it allows sensory results to be quantified. This is the essence of sensory science: converting human perception of a food into quantifiable results.

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