In a glass-fronted building facing Portland’s old waterfront, Oregon State University’s newest experiment station is an agricultural incubator where new products, technology and trade agreements are hatched.
The Food Innovation Center opened four years ago on Naito Parkway near the city’s Union Station. In collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Food Innovation Center’s state-of-the-art laboratories, testing facilities and product development studios represent more than a decade of development by state agricultural leaders and OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
The center is a place to grow new opportunities for Oregon agriculture, according to John Henry Wells, the station’s superintendent and an OSU professor of food technology.
"We’re helping traditional Oregon farm production transition into a profitable, consumer-driven agriculture," Wells said. "At the same time, we’re serving as an economic development engine for the state in creating new businesses and new jobs."
Research at the center focuses on practical problems—finding solutions that will make the difference between profit and loss for Oregon farmers, food processors, food distributors and retailers. Recent innovations range from a new low-sodium teriyaki sauce to carbonated fruit to the next-generation microwave oven.
Producers of more traditional agricultural products find help adjusting to a rapidly changing global marketplace. For example, Northwest fruit growers have watched for years as they lost market share to foreign competition from apple producers from such places as New Zealand and eastern Europe. Now Northwest growers are working with the center to find ways to get back the marketing advantage they used to enjoy.
"It used to be that in the winter, all you could buy in the grocery store were apples, oranges and bananas," said food scientist Anna Marin. Not any more. South American farmers keep northern markets stocked all winter with fresh strawberries, apricots and plums. It puts added pressure on Northwest fruit growers to ensure that their apples will meet consumers’ rising expectations and compete with the cornucopia of imported fruit.
Mealy, thick-skinned, flavorless apples are death to sales.
"If a customer bites into a mealy apple, they may not buy another apple for a long time," said Marin. Northwest apple growers wanted a reliably perfect apple, with the right combination of "sweet" and "crunchy." Pinpointing just exactly how sweet and how crunchy could translate into increased sales for Northwest fruit growers.
Marin organized laboratory tests in which consumer volunteers sampled several apple varieties and rated them according to specific degrees of the all-important characteristics of sweetness and crispness.
"We found that a few people actually like soft, mealy apples," Marin said. "But not many."
Her taste-testing data are used to calibrate the automated sorting sensors that growers use to select and sort apples. These machines now automatically detect precise degrees of sweetness and crispness.
Finding the subtle flavors that make red wine appealing to customers is one of Cathy Durham’s specialties as a marketing and trade economist for the Food Innovation Center.
Durham’s research often forms the base on which marketing strategies are built. Through surveys and consumer testing, she is able to report which advertising and marketing strategies have an effect on public awareness, and which don’t.
For instance, a recent study by Durham tested the properties and flavors in red wine that diners said they most enjoyed. Perhaps not surprisingly, red wines with a chocolate undertone produced a satisfied "Mmm," and so did a hint of lemon. Durham found that the restaurant goers she interviewed also were a bit more likely to buy a wine because it had been made in Oregon.
Oregon fruits and vegetables are the secret ingredients in a new low-sodium teriyaki sauce developed with help from the Food Innovation Center. Food scientist Sarah Masoni helped Portland restaurant owner Amy Kim and her chef Tony Gonzalez develop and bottle a new, healthy low-sodium teriyaki sauce.
Gonzalez was the one who developed the teriyaki sauce at Kim’s Sakura Japanese Restaurant in Aloha. Oregon-produced cherries and peppers give the sauce a rich, zesty flavor without fat or cholesterol, and with only a third of the sodium of most teriyaki sauces.
"It’s great for people on restricted diets who have to watch their salt and fat intake," said Masoni.
Kim sought Masoni’s help with marketing and the technical aspects of labeling the new product.
"I wouldn’t have known what to do without her help," said Kim, who now markets the new product at her restaurant and through her Web site.
The Food Innovation Center’s emphasis on business research and assistance helps bring dreams to market.
Potato grower Dan Walchli of Hermiston dreamed up a new way to add value to his potatoes. He envisioned a potato, container and condiments, ready to microwave and enjoy. With help from Food Innovation Center staff, he was able to follow through on his concept for Speedy Spud and test it in the marketplace.
Another innovation promises to add fizz to fruit. Researchers at the center have been developing new, healthy snacks using a novel technology of carbonating fruits and vegetables. These spicy sparkling fruits and vegetables have been well-received by consumers. Together with the inventor, the Food Innovation Center has received a grant to develop a prototype fresh-fruit carbonator.
Sometimes innovations reach beyond taste to state-of-the-art technology. For example, researcher Qingyue Ling, superintendent John Henry Wells, and others at OSU’s Food Innovation Center are developing radio wave technology to heat food, an innovation that could send microwave ovens the way of the rotary dial telephone.
Radio frequency heating dates back to the 1940s. The current research promises technology that can fully thaw and cook a rock-frozen roast in less than an hour. A larger version of the technology could quickly cure a warehouse full of green lumber without warping the wood.
Ling said the device works because "excited" long-frequency radio waves create a faster, more stable and penetrating heat. Once perfected, the technology could flash-cook foods to preserve freshness, flavor and nutrition. Milk could be pasteurized with less loss of vitamins. Such a device would have endless applications in the food preparation industry, and could be adapted for home use.
The researchers still face challenges. Although it is possible to heat organic substances rapidly with radio waves, they also must be cooled rapidly so that nutrition, flavor, moisture and texture aren’t lost. Ling and Wells are seeking grants to fund construction of a prototype that will enable further experimentation.
This and other industrial products under development at the center may help expand food processing industries and create jobs in Oregon.
For entrepreneurs just breaking into the food processing industry, the Food Innovation Center offers a half-day introductory workshop about starting a food business, called Northwest Food Business 101. The workshop, developed in collaboration with Washington State University, helps prospective business people understand the process of product development and marketing and how to evaluate their potential venture.
"The workshop is designed to help tame the chaos that surrounds the process of starting a food business," said Aaron Johnson, food business strategy specialist at the center and one of the workshop’s organizers. "Participants come away with a clearer picture of their motivations for starting a new company, their expectations for the company and an understanding about how compatible these two are."
Supported in part by federal and state dollars, the Food Innovation Center also raises revenue by selling its laboratory testing services to entrepreneurs and food processors who contract for laboratory research and consumer testing. The Food Innovation Center is drawing interest from growers and food processors across the West and bringing attention to Oregon from food industry giants around the world.
Sarah Masoni regularly hosts international trade delegations with feasts featuring Oregon specialties such as hazelnuts, lamb and cherries. With such high quality ingredients, innovation becomes an Oregon specialty, and the Food Innovation Center will help keep Oregon agriculture vital well into the future.