April 30, 2013

Peer Review: Students Develop New Food Product: Squashetti

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If you were at the annual Apple Fest last year in downtown Ithaca, you might have run across a group of Cornell students asking for opinions on peculiar food ideas like chocolate ravioli or peanut butter hummus.

The Institute of Food Technologist Student Association Product Development team, led by co-captains Kyle Clark ’14 and Katie Strickland ’14, was looking to receive feedback at the festival in order to decide on a food concept. The team was in the process of developing an idea to participate at the national IFTSA competition held in Chicago this summer from July 13 to 16.

They are now one of the six finalists invited to compete at the prestigious competition sponsored by Mars Inc., a global food manufacturer known for several products, including M&M’s and Juicy Fruit.

“During Apple Fest, we went downtown and interviewed potential consumers about which concepts they like the most,” Clark said.

The team said that developing the idea for the competition was a process that took collaborative group effort and creative judgments.

“We presented a description of each product. From there, we formulated our products,” Rebecca Mangona ’14 said.

In the end, they decided to pick “Squashetti,” a pasta dish that replaces flour-based pasta with squash, topped with pomodoro sauce and grilled chicken. When prepared correctly, the squash resembles the shape of pasta.

Clark said that customers today demand nutritious and gluten-free food, which has become a food trend. The team’s squashetti is a food concept that addresses some of those market demands.

“It has about one-sixth of the calories of a regular pasta dish. The idea here is to allow consumers to enjoy a traditional pasta dish with the spaghetti squash without going overboard,” Clark said.

According to Clark,  the team submitted a 20-page proposal about their product in order to qualify as one of the six finalists in the nation. The competition in Chicago will serve as an extension of their product development, where the team will have the opportunity to submit its final proposal, participate in an oral and poster presentations and present their product sample for a taste test.

Despite the seemingly subjective nature of the competition that involves food sampling, the team said that the competition is fairly technical. According to Claire Zoellner M.S. ’15, the judges will not only evaluate the quality and originality of the product, but also other aspects of food development such as budgeting and production management that are essential components of operating a business.

“We are judged on our technical problem solving skills and the research that’s gone into the product,” Zoellner said.

From marketing to profitability to food processing, the team’s proposal addresses multiple aspects of food development.

The team’s description of the cooking process is detailed. In order to prepare the squash, one needs to manually remove the seeds. Then the squash strands, which will replace the traditional flour-based pasta, are separated using a high-pressure water spray system. The process requires a two-compartment steamer tray with oriented polypropylene, a thermoplastic, or pliable, polymer, which promotes steaming and allows water to escape to the spaghetti squash compartment.

“The squash is going to be rotating around in high pressure to break up the strands and the water will be drained out,” Zoellner said. “It’s kind of like a washing machine. The food will go through the spin cycle.”

Still, taste remains an important element, and the team said the concept of replacing traditional pasta with squash is a good idea.

“It’s a pretty good base for the sauce because it doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor component it contributes,” Olivia Weihe ’14 said..

According to the competition’s rules, the top three winners of the competition will receive cash awards and their products will be featured in Food Technology magazine, a monthly magazine published by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Aside from the competition, the team said that the project has been a valuable learning experience.

“Across the board, this project really applies to everything we’re learning as food science majors,” Mangona said. “It’s a great experience, especially if you’re looking to go into the food industry.”

Original Author: Junsuk Ahn