Nutrition tasting class
CPP Magazine

Food For Thought

Through Teamwork and Learn-by-Doing, Students Create Products Designed For Supermarket Shelves

By Paul Sterman

The students were stumped. The group of five seniors had a goal at the beginning of the food product development class: to make an instant breakfast item that’s tasty and nutritious. Their vision for a bite-size milk-and-cereal ball was clear, but making it a reality was proving harder than they thought.

They were stymied as they tried to develop the precise formula for the ball’s milky center — the “lava” filling. The texture and taste weren’t right, and students couldn’t figure out the exact temperature at which to heat the liquid.

“We had a lot of difficulties,” recalls team member Zin Mon.

Unlocking the keys to this food puzzle would take perseverance and problem-solving skills — qualities that every food scientist worth their salt needs to be successful.

Showtime at AGRIscapes

The class, part of the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture’s nutrition and food science department, challenges student teams to design and develop an innovative food product intended for supermarket shelves. It’s a task that draws upon students’ previous coursework in biology, chemistry, food safety, nutrition and food process engineering.

A few days before the end of the fall semester, the class showcases its ideas in a large room at Cal Poly Pomona’s AGRIscapes. Open to the public, the event represents the culmination of student work over the past 15 weeks.

At the showcase, students hand out a variety of samples, such as vegan jerky, grilled-cheese-and-tomato flatbread, and a cookie snack with peanut butter and banana filling.

Of that last item, called a Breakie, senior Rosanna Eldumiate says it took a lot of tinkering until her team was satisfied.

“We had at least 20 different versions of our Breakie until we got the right one,” she says.

Her group’s trial-and-error experience is the norm. Throughout the semester, the eight teams of four or five students put in about six hours a week in the lab to experiment with their product, revise formulations, draw on feedback from taste tests, assess input from their classmates, and experiment and revise some more — all while adhering to strict food safety and nutrition guidelines.

“It’s the ultimate example of learning by doing, from beginning to end,” says Lisa Kessler, interim dean of the Huntley College of Agriculture.

It Begins with Breakfast

The milk-and-cereal ball team was inspired by a popular snack in Vietnam — deep-fried rice balls coated in bread crumbs. Team member Thanh Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam when he was 18, says the team put an American spin on the snack in creating a nutritious breakfast product for consumers on the go.

“We had at least 20 different versions of our Breakie until we got the right one.”
-Rosanna Eldumiate, student

The bite-sized ball has a crunchy cereal exterior and a warm, creamy center.  “It’s a good source of protein for people who want to go out and exercise after breakfast,” Nguyen notes.

milk-and-cereal-ballsWhere things got sticky for the group was nailing down the specifics for the liquid center. It took a great deal of experimentation before they found the right temperature and cooking time.

The students also struggled with the consistency of the creamy filling, which is made from pudding, whey and sweet potatoes.

Jacqueline Trinh, the team’s culinary expert, tried adding starch to the filling, but it made the texture too jellylike. To thicken the filling, she hit upon an idea: xanthan gum, a substance she learned about and analyzed in other food science classes. Xanthan gum thickened the milky center and gave it the right texture.

Another important aspect was the data analysis by team member Jeffery Lo. After the sensory evaluation tests (outside participants taste-tasted the various products), Lo broke down their responses about taste, look and texture so his group could improve its offering.

The result is a breakfast item that goes from freezer to toaster oven. A quick and easy meal — no utensils or bowls needed.

Team members say that overcoming challenges along the way made their eventual success all the more satisfying.

“This is how we learn,” says My Le, a senior. The exacting process of experimentation and analysis is preparation for working in the food-science industry, she adds.

“You have to make sure that every step is done right.”

Healthy Competition

Students in the class also gear their efforts toward regional and national collegiate food-product competitions. Each group creates its product with an eye on a specific contest: healthy children’s snacks, products for developing countries, or products using 50 percent dairy ingredients. All have specific requirements.

Once they have a finished product, students submit their proposals. Competitions give teams an opportunity to hear feedback from industry professionals and possibly win a cash prize.

“Competition brings extra motivation to students, and the contests’ guidelines align with what we’re trying to teach them,” says Assistant Professor and Culinology® coordinator Gabriel Davidov-Pardo, who teaches the class with lecturer Dianne Thuy Trinh. “It brings the real world to the class.”

Trinh, a veteran of the food industry, brings a real-world perspective. Having worked as a product development scientist for companies such as Kellogg’s and Nellson Nutraceutical, Trinh offers a multitude of practical tips to her charges.

Cognizant of the different skill sets needed to flourish in the food industry, she prods students to work efficiently and consistently, be creative, think critically, communicate clearly and be aware of financial constraints.

All of these skills lead to success after graduation.

“We push them, but they want to be pushed,” Trinh says with a smile.

Indeed, students in the nutrition and food science department are a hard-working and highly motivated bunch, says Department Chair and Professor Harmit Singh

Visiting the end-of-semester showcase, he beams with pride when discussing the work not only of the students in this class but in the department as a whole. It’s exciting and impressive, says Singh, to watch students and alumni grow and progress — in classes, internships, job interviews and successful career paths.

“It’s really amazing and rewarding.”

Students evaluate the taste, appearance and texture of the food products during taste testing.

Application of Knowledge

We use multiple modalities of teaching to facilitate student learning of theory, followed by reinforcement of theoretical knowledge through active, hands-on application of principles to address opportunities and challenges of the modern world.