Students on the University of Wisconsin-Madison food product development team have smelled success for the past four years. Last year it was close enough to taste.
This year, they had a heaping double helping.
After four years as finalists and a second-place finish last year, the 2001 team took top prize in a competition sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists, a 28,000-member professional group.
Their winning entry was Handicotti, a hand-held pasta product filled with ricotta cheese and a tomato sauce chunked with sausage and vegetables.
Sweetening that victory, the product that earned the UW-Madison team a second prize in last year’s IFT contest – a cereal bar named Chomp – won first prize this year in a NASA-sponsored competition of foods designed for space travel. The nine team members are students in either food science or food engineering in the UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
The IFT contest judges were impressed not just by Handicotti’s taste, texture and eye appeal, but also by the team’s account of how they went about refining the product until they got it right, says Achyuth Hassan, a food science graduate student who served as leader of the 2001 team.
“Other teams presented their products as if there were no problems along the way,” Hassan explains. “We made it clear, in our presentation and on our posters, that we had to solve a lot of problems. The judges liked hearing about our learning process.”
That learning process took them through a cycle of brainstorming, research and reformulation as they evaluated cost, shelf-life, food safety, nutrition, manufacturing strategies, packaging, marketing, and, of course, consumer acceptance.
“Initially the sauce and ricotta was mixed together,” explains Hassan. “But our focus group said they wanted more cheese. So we changed the whole process, going to a co-extrusion process where we could have a layer of cheese and a layer of sauce.”
Based on the focus group’s suggestions, the team also put more spice, sausage and vegetables in the sauce, and reformulated the pasta to eliminate doughiness.
They also tinkered with packaging, switching to a plastic that wouldn’t deform when handled or microwaved. And they balanced moisture content in the cheese, sauce and pasta so the colors wouldn’t run together.
In addition to Hassan, team members include graduate students Kole Ewoldt, Debby Levenson, Laura Lebak, Vidya Venkat, Erin Natvig and Peggy Mak, and undergraduates Chad Fahrenkrug and Colleen Madden.
Hassan and Lebak, along with James Colby, now a food engineer with Oscar Mayer, were members of the team that developed the Chomp cereal bar for last year’s contest.
The Chomp bar – crunchy puffed corn cereal, rolled oats, dried raspberries and blueberries held together with a binder made from milk – seemed liked a good fit for the NASA space food competition.
“We took last year’s product and made some minor formulation changes, removing some of the moisture to give it a longer shelf life,” Hassan explains.
Lebak, co-leader of last year’s team leader and a veteran of three IFT contests, says the contests teach students a lot of skills not directly related to food and nutrition.
“We improve our people skills – things like teamwork and conflict resolution,” she says. “We also learn about creativity, marketing and finance. And we learn to speak nontechnically. Most of us are pretty good at presenting information to a scientific audience. But when you have to get up and sell a product, it”s a lot different.”
The contests also generate job offers, she adds: “People come up to our poster session and ask, ”What are you doing after college?””