Class x Class: Food Product Research & Development

Food science professor Paula Figoni lecturing to students
Paula Figoni’s Product Research + Development class teaches students how to create, test-market and develop market-ready foods.

Ever wondered what it takes to get a product to your supermarket shelf? Paula Figoni's senior-level Product Research and Development class does. Every term, they create, test-market and develop a market-ready food product in 11 weeks.

“It’s a big challenge,” noted Figoni, a food scientist and author who began her career as a product developer for Pillsbury. “They’re testing these products the same way they would out in the industry.”

Researching the Competition
Working in groups of 4-5, students brainstormed various concepts, finally narrowing their products down to one. Final products ranged from all-natural apple strudel toaster pastries and white bean hummus pesto to “Ready Set Spaghetti,” a spaghetti squash “pasta” with black bean “meatballs” and a basil-rich red sauce.

As they refined their recipes, each group was required to research their target market and consumer base, comparing their product against comparable items for flavor, price point and health claims.

A second option was to test how tolerant their product was to consumer use. “Is the product shelf-stable? What percentage of the product can’t be sold? What happens if a consumer misunderstands the packaging instructions?” explained Figoni. “They have to take all of these variables into consideration.”

Solving Problems + Boosting Flavor
The tight timeframe forced students to think on their feet to solve all kinds of unanticipated problems, such as sourcing ingredients, working out costs and balancing taste and nutritional value.

While the final version of the Strawberry Frozen Parfaitwich showcased a satisfyingly chewy honey-pecan cookie and a naturally tart, ice-cold center, initial attempts yielded unpleasantly icy frozen yogurt and soggy cookies.

Students working on group projects for Product Development

This class really opened my eyes as to how much you have to go through to bring a product to market.” -ADUNNI OGUNLANOH

“Without fat to bind the frozen yogurt, it got icy,” noted Courtney Reed, one of the product’s developers. The solution? “Adding guar gum, a naturally-derived stabilizer, worked perfectly.”

They also had to decide whether or not they wanted to position their product for the health-food market. “The yogurt is low-fat, but the cookie isn’t,” said Courtney’s teammate Jamie Shulman. “Making a healthier cookie would have been more expensive. It does have a trace amount of flax seed, which is a good source of omega-3s. But upping the amount of flax would have made for a coarser, more crumbly cookie.”

Taste Tests Are Tricky
A white bean hummus with garlicky pesto presented some challenges of its own. “Garlic is tough,” noted Adunni Ogunlanoh, one of the developers. “It can be too strong and overpower everything else. In the end, we found that a week in the fridge mellows out the flavors.”

Keeping the pesto green was another issue. “A little bit of lemon juice goes a long way,” said Adunni’s teammate Jennifer Danaux.

For the makers of “Ready Set Spaghetti,” getting the right texture was a problem. “Unless we really dried out the meatballs, they got soggy when we froze them,” noted Mathew Murray. For the final product, they settled on a crispier black bean cake, which held up well against the sauce.

Product Development students choosing ingredients

Product Development students choosing ingredients.

Prime Time Products
Figoni’s class culminated in a public taste test where each group unveiled its market-ready product to a select group of students, chef-instructors and visitors.

Weeks of hard work paid off as samples were snapped up and murmurs of “wow” and “yum!” echoed around the room.

Clearly, these students were having a lot of fun. But they were also gaining a solid foundation in food research. Said Figoni, “I once had an alum come back to talk to the food science club. He told me, ‘You really do all this stuff out in the industry!’” Adunni agreed: “This class really opened my eyes as to how much you have to go through to bring a product to market.”

Topics: Culinary Arts