This summer, Utah State University Nutrition, Dietetics & Food Sciences Department graduate students Nathan Pougher, Chandler Stafford, Mackenzie Taylor, Melissa Marsh and Annalisa Jones conquered three national product development competitions, securing two first-place wins in contests sponsored by Ocean Spray and the National Dairy Council, as well as a third-place award in the Institute of Food Technologists competition.
Marie Walsh, professor of food science at Utah State University, served as the team’s faculty adviser.
“It takes months of dedication by the students to become a finalist in a product development competition,” Walsh said. “The students work diligently and complete reports, sensory evaluations and presentations. The department as well as others support the students in these endeavors by providing financial and facilities support.”
Preparation for the competitions began last year, with initial reports due in January that summarized months of product formulation and testing. After being notified in February that they were finalists, the students spent the rest of the spring perfecting their products, completing sensory evaluations and finally sending their products to be sampled by judges.
For the Ocean Spray competition, the students developed “Crocos,” customizable cranberry dessert tacos. The dessert snack box includes cranberry fruit leather cut into rounds to make a tortilla-esque outer wrap, brownie crumbles to mimic a ground meat filling, dyed coconut that bears a striking resemblance to lettuce, and small crunchy meringues to stand-in for cotija cheese for extra toppings.
“Because our teams are relatively small, it usually works best if we all are together to talk about what’s going on,” said Melissa Marsh, a food science doctoral student at USU, team captain, and president of the Food Science Club. “With our four-member team that developed Moba Boba and Crocos, we sometimes split it up where two of us would work on fruit leather, two worked on the brownie and then we’d come together and talk about what happened, what we liked, and what we didn’t like. Most of the time we’re together getting everyone’s feedback.”
In addition to making a snack that was healthy for kids and adhered to USDA guidelines, the competition included the challenge to incorporate one or more food production waste streams. The students incorporated cranberry presscake (fruit solids leftover from the juicing process), cranberry permeate, and ground cocoa shells.
“Once we faced the judges, they were very impressed that our first ingredient for Crocos was cranberries,” said team member Nathan Pougher. “It was around 27% cranberries by final weight. That was some of the best feedback we got. Conversely, some of the hardest questions that were directed at us related to the logistics of producing a product with four separate elements. We got quite a few hard questions about how that would be feasible from an industrial standpoint.”
Ultimately, the team took first place in the Ocean Spray competition, which included $5,000 and an invitation to visit Boston and Ocean Spray’s headquarters. The team hopes to visit the headquarters and cranberry bogs during harvest season.
Dairy for Gamers
While working on the Ocean Spray competition, the team was also developing a product for the National Dairy Council’s competition, which challenged participants to develop an innovative dairy-based product for gamers. Among young people in the U.S., 94% report playing some video games, and of that huge group, 48% drink soft drinks while they play, making gamers a large potential market for a new kind of drink.
The team developed “MOBA Boba” a dairy-based, pineapple-flavored energy drink made from acid whey and whey phospholipid protein concentrate with high-protein coconut flavored boba gummies. The name “MOBA” is a nod to the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena gaming genre. The drink also has 130 mg of caffeine, which is comparable to other energy drinks.
Marsh said acid whey has been a challenge for dairy companies to upcycle because its high mineral content makes it difficult to dispose of and its acidic flavor was not very palatable. But they hit on a formula they feel will resonate with gamers because of its taste, nutrition, energy and sustainability components.
“MOBA Boba shines a positive light because the dairy industry gets a lot of media attention on not being sustainable,” Marsh said. “So being able to say we’re making dairy more sustainable and using this waste product is beneficial and something we’re really proud of.”
Anand Rao, vice president of ingredients innovation for Agropur US Operations, has annually served as a judge for the National Dairy council competition and was impressed by this year’s entries.
“MOBA Boba checked all of the boxes of convenience, taste, overall nutrition balance, and sustainable packaging,” Rao said. “I have worked in the dairy industry for a long time and this competition always shows me the promise of the future. It brings in innovative concepts that we don’t even think about sometimes.”
After traveling to the Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST (Food Improved by Research, Science and Technology) conference in Chicago and presenting to the judges, the team won first place for MOBA Boba and a cash prize.
Hatching a Smart Cookie
As a separate smaller team, Marsh and teammate Annalisa Jones competed in the Institute of Food Technologists’ Smart Snacks for Kids contest. They began working on “Saurus Snacks” in early 2021 but were not selected to compete as a finalist in that year’s competition.
After a year of improving their product, Marsh and Jones came up with the final version of Saurus Snacks, an interactive snack comprised of a lightly sweetened meringue “eggshell” enclosing one of three dinosaur cookies and were invited to compete as finalists.
Saurus Snacks took third place and a cash prize in this year’s competition.
The students attribute their success in the competitions to the USU faculty and working together as a team.
“We have so many brilliant professors who know these topics so well and were a tremendous help in understanding what needed to go into marketing, nutrition, and the processing side,” Jones said. “USU is an excellent resource for preparing for these competitions. My best advice for success is to have Melissa on your team because she has won so many competitions.”
By participating in competitions like these, food science students put what they learn in the classroom into practice and gain familiarity with topics outside their emphasis area while rubbing shoulders with industry professionals.
“After being a part of these product development competitions, I gained real-world experience and perspective on working in the food industry,” Stafford said. “Not to mention the patience, passion, and soft skills it takes to work successfully in a team. These opportunities make me excited to pursue my career in food science and nutrition. I hope I get the chance to work on more product development projects like these in the future.”
Food Science isn’t Culinary School
Unlike a degree in culinary arts, the food science degree program at USU concentrates on the biochemistry, biology and chemical engineering of food. Students learn to analyze the nutritional content of food, discover new food sources and research ways to improve processed foods.
“For students who are looking at food science, I know that most people don’t even know what food science is or they assume it’s culinary where we just bake — and I know in product development, we did bake — but there are a lot of job opportunities and it’s a vast field,” said team member Makenzie Taylor. “Nathan’s specialty is dairy. Chandler and I are studying meat science. Melissa’s looking into liquid migrations. What people think about when they think of food science is just the tip of the iceberg.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 3,000 jobs are added to the food science field each year, and as a STEM discipline, these positions tend to pay well.
“There are a bunch of different general areas in food science, but then in each industry there are still different areas that you could work in,” Pougher said. “A single production plant requires a team over quality assurance. There could be a branch of product development people and a whole team of safety people. All of those people are food scientists.”
Stafford encourages other students to participate in competitions like these, regardless of their specific research interests.
“I think a lot of students turn away from certain product development competitions just because their research or their expertise isn’t in that area of the food industry,” Stafford said. “Don’t limit yourself.”
Marsh added: “A lot of these competitions hinge on coming up with an idea. If you need help with the safety aspects or the processing aspects, there are example reports and advisers who can help you. A lot of people think, ‘I don’t know enough to do this,’ but if you can cook, if you can come up with an idea, you can do a competition like this.”
To learn more about the Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Sciences degrees offered at USU, visit caas.usu.edu/ndfs or contact Dawnetta Mahnken, academic adviser, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 435-797-3096.
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