Walk down a grocery store aisle today and you’re likely to find lots of food…and lots of marketing claims. Whether a product’s label says it’s low in fat, produced without hormones, or a good source of protein is largely governed by consumer demand and corporate profit.
Long before a new product gets onto a store shelf, a team has to work diligently in the lab to come up with a recipe formula that will earn it the label claims discerning customers want, while still netting the company a profit. Students at Iowa State University get a real-life glimpse of how that works in the Food Product Development class.
In January, as a timer went off in a lab kitchen, students pulled from the oven yet another iteration of their pizza crust. It was not a perfect circle and had not cooked evenly. But this one got cooked all the way through and the edges were toasted-brown and crispy.
Kassie Ricklefs, a senior at Iowa State, said it didn’t behave like normal pizza dough because of the unique, gluten-free recipe.
“The crust is made out of cauliflower instead of regular flour,” Ricklefs said.
Over this past semester, these students were charged with inventing something new. Like the pizza group, many started with consumer trends. Dairy-free, whole grains, fruits and vegetables were all on students’ minds. At the end of February, they faced their first major test: presenting their ideas to a visiting panel of food industry professionals.
One group passed out samples of their snack idea: red pepper hummus surrounded by crackers made green from spinach and kale.
“Today we’re going to be introducing you to Simple Virtues,” began student Cory Rasmussen, “Honestly good, honestly green.” The presentation went on to list the product’s ingredients, and the students emphasized that the formula is “gluten-free, vegan, allergen-free.”
Food industry panelist Terri Vander Pol of Wells Enterprises, though, said she worried the word “simple” might mislead consumers.
“'Simple' to a lot of people means five ingredients, or seven ingredients, or things I can pronounce,” Vander Pol said. That’s impractical in a product that may sit on a shelf for weeks, must be as cheap as possible, and has crackers that must stay crisp.
With the panel’s feedback in hand, the students next had to figure out an economical way to create their product in a large quantity.
Virginia Tech professor Courtney Thomas, who studies the politics around food labeling, said companies, just like these students, will often develop something new in response to consumer interest or demand. But jumping on a trend is not necessarily quick or easy.
“The tweaking that has to go on in this product formulation as you try to capture parts of the market is something that I don't think most people think about when they think about what they're buying,” Thomas said, “and when they look at those labels.”
These students were razor-focused on formulation. They were fluent in the language of stabilizers and starches, pH and moisture migration.
Moisture proved a real challenge for the group making pizza crust from cauliflower. Initially, they tried cooking the cauliflower, pureeing it and then attempted to squeeze out the unwanted water. Once they got permission to use a large dehydrator—called a drum dryer—at a commercial-size food-grade lab on campus, they were able to convert the puree into a crumbly, dry ingredient. Alone, it looked like shredded wheat. But the dried cauliflower mixed easily with the egg, cheese and herbs in their recipe to create something that very much resembled a traditional pizza crust.
When the food industry panel came back to Ames at the end of the semester, the frozen, gluten-free, cauliflower pizza crust got a thumbs-up.
“The idea of drum drying worked,” said John’Ta Jones, a technician at Tone’s, a spice company in Ankeny, Iowa.
“Creating an extremely dehydrated product then adding the water back in, I thought, was brilliant. And the end product was really flavorful, it was really good.”
Meanwhile, the hummus and cracker group opted to change its name. The word “simple” was gone, replaced with H2 Hummus Harmony. The green package had a window to view the sandwich crackers and said “vegan, gluten-free, whole grain, good source of fiber” on one panel.
Even though most people won’t care about those features, the small minority who do are often willing to pay more.
“Retailers are aware of these consumers and want to be able to market products to them,” said Carmen Bain, an Iowa State sociologist who studies food movements. “And there's some really good data that shows just how profitable this is.”
For companies, profit is the holy-grail of new food products. Most of us aren’t paying any attention to that when we rip open a new package that tempted us from the shelf.