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Food Innovations with Entrepreneurs

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OSU’s research chef helps launch new products

In a research kitchen gleaming with industrial scales and sleek appliances, an ice-cream maker jingles sweetly. “It’s done!” announces Jason Ball, research chef at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. We’re here in this professional setting—a cross between science laboratory and five-star restaurant kitchen—to make ice cream.

making frozen dessert

Product development begins with small-batch tests to fine-tune the recipe for highest quality and food safety. (Photos by Shawn Linehan.)

The little machine registers a temperature of -40 degrees Fahrenheit, surprisingly cold, I thought, for ice cream. Ball corrects me: “We call this a ‘frozen dessert,’ because the sugar and fat content are too low to be considered ice cream.” He explains that the low temperature and constant agitation in the machine gives the frozen dessert smaller ice crystals and a smooth, rich texture. He dishes up a few sample tastes.

Joining us is Chris Spencer, founder of UpStar Nutrition. This is his company’s frozen dessert. He’s working with researchers at the Food Innovation Center to refine a recipe for a low-sugar, high-protein concoction that rivals ice cream.

“This isn’t an ice cream that will appeal to people who love Ben & Jerry’s,” laughs Spencer. But it is exactly what he and his partner Gabrielle Sanders are seeking with their new health and wellness company featuring delicious food with functional nutrition. This is Upstar’s first product, and its development is being DEVELOPMENTassisted by a grant received by OSU’s dairy processing specialist Lisbeth Goddik from the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council. UpStar’s frozen dessert will be made with Oregon dairy, eggs, and fruit.

Sarah Masoni stops in for a taste. As a food scientist and senior faculty research assistant at the Food Innovation Center, she’s worked hard to develop the right proportions for the frozen dessert. She brings a copy of the recipe with exact weights and proportions of ingredients.

We all get a taste of the snowy dessert. First just the base, without any flavoring, and then a version speckled with chopped vanilla beans and enhanced with Bourbon vanilla creating UpStar’s Vanilla Dream. It tastes smooth and creamy, just like regular ice cream, but without a cloying sugar taste. A small vanilla note shines through at the end. It doesn’t taste like an ice cream imposter. The trio decides to increase the vanilla a bit, to let more flavor shine through.

We take turns testing how the dessert scoops. Is the texture right? Does it make the typical round scoop? It’s important that the product tastes, feels, and looks like ice cream, even though the target market will be nutrition-minded people who want protein balanced with limited amounts of fat and sugar.

testing frozen dessert

UpStar Nutrition’s Gabrielle Sanders and Chris Spencer sample the latest iteration of their recipe at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. (Photos by Shawn Linehan.)

With the recipe in place, Ball sets Spencer to work. It’s important for Chris to be able to recreate the recipe, Ball explains as he places ingredients across the prep table and sets up a double boiler and handheld blender. I move out of the way (and slip on an apron, just in case).

“Working in stages is how a product’s developed,” says Ball. “You have to nudge the idea further and further each time.” After mixing and testing and nudging along, Vanilla Dream will soon be ready for sensory testing.

Ball and Masoni work like this, developing more than a dozen products at a time, in a process that can take up to six months. But product development isn’t all just ice cream. Recently, they consulted on a special recipe for people suffering from digestion issues. They’ve helped invent a menu of delicious foods made with seaweed. Much of their work is done confidentially, with companies and entrepreneurs who want to protect their ideas until the moment they hit the grocery store shelves.

At the Food Innovation Center—and the food entrepreneurship scene in Portland, Oregon—Ball and Masoni are leading the way into a world in which food science research informs the culinary arts and the culinary arts inspire food science to move towards tastier outcomes. Helping food entrepreneurs develop their products is a main goal of the FIC. Ball and Masoni’s product development process helps entrepreneurs, food processors, and food producers to develop food products for market testing and sale. Some successful clients include Salt & Straw, Bob’s Red Mill, and Chez Marie.

As a food scientist, Masoni concerns herself with the practicalities. “The most important thing—is it safe?” says Masoni. She looks at issues like, is the pH balanced, is the water content correct, what about the Brix (sugar) level, can we reduce the sodium without affecting taste?

Masoni is well-known for her knowledge and experience of what it means to taste good, look good, and appeal to consumers. “She’s got the million-dollar palate,” Spencer says.

As a research chef and culinary scientist, Ball is concerned with food as form and experience. “Food is a language, a form of communication people can share,” he says.

frozen dessert with strawberries

It’s important that the product tastes, feels, and looks like ice cream, even though the target market will be nutrition-minded people who want protein balanced with limited amounts of fat and sugar. (Photos by Shawn Linehan.)

Pooling their knowledge in food science and technology, culinary arts, the restaurant industry, and entrepreneurship, Ball and Masoni work as a team to create innovative food products with an eye toward commercial production, traceability, and food safety. Clients come to them with a wide range of dreams and challenges. “As product developers, we help our clients translate those dreams into objectives.” Masoni laughs. “It’s our responsibility to figure out what needs to be done and we figure out how to do it.”

All this happens at OSU’s Food Innovation Center, one of the nation’s first urban agricultural experiment stations. The writers of the 1887 Hatch Act, which created agricultural experiment stations across the nation, didn’t foresee the development of UpStar’s Vanilla Dream or Salt & Straw’s Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper ice cream. But the mission of the Food Innovation Center fits well with the AES mission of economic development and research-based information for the people of Oregon.

Once Spencer and Sanders decide the frozen dessert is what they’ve envisioned, they can work with the FIC’s Sensory and Consumer Testing Service to test the product with its target market, consumers who share the same set of core values as UpStar Nutrition. They can work with FIC experts on food packaging and food safety—all part of the product development process at OSU’s Food Innovation Center.

“They’re all pieces of the puzzle,” says Spencer as he packs up some of the new, more vanilla-y Vanilla Dream for his partner to sample.