Waiter! There's a Blueberry in my Burger!
UMaine food scientists develop products with the potential to
benefit businesses and consumers
In fisheries or any other natural resource-based industry, it's
critical to go beyond sales of fresh products and look at frozen,
value-added and processed alternatives.
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For some people, a combination of
leftover crabmeat and pasta is dinner tonight. For food scientist Denise
Skonberg, it's a potential new product waiting to be developed.
Skonberg's lab has created several varieties of crab-flavored pasta in
recent years. They're only a few of the many products, most based on
traditional Maine foods, that have come out of University of Maine food
But this is no recipe contest. Scientists like Skonberg see a need a
business that wants to expand its market with a new product, a natural
resource that is underutilized or wasted, consumer demand for healthier
foods and head to the laboratory to create foods for the future. Their
experiments in food science incorporate biology, chemistry, microbiology
and even a dash of engineering.
After months or years of research to develop a product, the ultimate
judge is still the human palate. Skonberg and her colleagues depend on
volunteers to taste test their creations. Every new variety of boiled
potato, seafood-based snack food or cranberry muffin has to have the
right flavor, texture and appearance, among many other characteristics,
to succeed in the market.
UMaine's food scientists are working with the state's natural
resource-based industries seafood, blueberry, potato, apple and others
to develop new products to boost revenues and create jobs. As
scientists at Maine's land-grant university, they know that helping
Maine's food producers is their top priority.
"Economic growth in Maine's modern agriculture industry cannot occur
without food product development research," says Rod Bushway, chair of
the UMaine Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and a
researcher nationally recognized for his work on pesticide residue
analysis on fruits and vegetables. "The days are over when production
agriculture is the lone factor in growth. Unless you are changing the
raw commodity into value-added products, you're missing the biggest
potential for economic development and growth that agriculture can
contribute to a state's economy."
Seafood-based pasta is just one of the new products in development in
UMaine's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. It started with
an idea: crab linguini. Skonberg and her students used minced crab the
meat usually left on the shells after processing to make a paste. They
evaluated the paste for its nutritional and chemical characteristics,
and did microbial analyses to determine its fresh or frozen shelf life.
After a year of experiments and tests, the crab mince, which is high in
protein, was used as an ingredient to make pasta.
But when taste tested, the linguini didn't get rave reviews from the
consumers. Their verdict: not much crab flavor. "They indicated there
was nothing exciting about it," says Skonberg, UMaine associate
professor of food science and human nutrition. "While we had developed a
protein-enriched product with the shelf life of a month (fresh, not
frozen), it was not a gourmet, seafood-tasting pasta."
It was back to the laboratory for the pasta a common reality for any
food scientist. Yet even research that doesn't directly lead to
commercialization has value. Research results are published and
presented at conferences. And they serve as springboards for developing
other new products.
"When we found we couldn't put crab in pasta, we decided we could use
the same amount of mince and wrap it in pasta," says Skonberg. "That's
when we decided to try stuffed ravioli."
Skonberg and her colleagues worked with Cal Hancock of Hancock Gourmet
Lobster Co., in Cundy's Harbor, Maine, to develop the product. In 2001,
Hancock received a $10,000 seed grant from the Maine Technology
Institute to develop new lobster and crab pasta products. The ravioli
research took 10 months.
To meet the gourmet standards required by Hancock, the food scientists
developed fresh and frozen ravioli made with crab mince and chunks of
lobster. From two sensory panels, the ravioli received a rating of 7.5
out of 9 (liked very much). Skonberg will present findings from her
seafood-based ravioli research at the Trans Atlantic Fisheries
Technology Conference this June in Iceland.
"The sensory testing was quite positive and we are pleased by that,"
says Hancock, owner and president of Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co., a
retail/mail-order business marketing specialty food primarily made out
"Lobster ravioli is a fairly common product and there are other
companies that make lobster ravioli," says Hancock. "We may want to
develop a unique' lobster pasta product using similar ingredients, but
just making it a little bit different (i.e., a large, single-serving
ravioli or one made into a different shape)."
New product development starts with an understanding of what people will
consume, says Professor of Food Science Mary Ellen Camire. That's why
sensory evaluation is so important. Despite today's technological
advances, there's still no substitute for taste tests.
The University of Maine is the only institution in New England and the
Maritimes and one of only 15 nationwide that offers a formal sensory
evaluation program. The state-of-the-art sensory evaluation lab has a
new home in a food research pilot plant, which includes a commercial
kitchen used by both human nutrition and food science researchers. The
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition recently relocated to
Hitchner Hall, with its new $12 million science wing and pilot plant,
financed largely by a research and development bond referendum in 1998.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also provided $545,000 in a
In the sensory evaluation lab, food scientists compile complex
statistical data to help industry make predictions about the validity of
new products. Sensory tests to rate a product's flavor, aroma, texture
and other characteristics also are instrumental when investigating the
trade-offs consumers are willing to make in the name of better
Take cranberry juice cocktail. Most brands contain 27 percent cranberry
juice, which is high in cancer-fighting antioxidants. Con-sumers seeking
the benefits of antioxidants are more likely to buy a product with a
higher percentage of juice, but are they willing to give up on taste?
Women in sensory tests preferred the taste of cranberry juice cocktail
containing up to 34 percent juice, says Camire. However, once they were
given information on the health benefits of cranberries, the women
reported that they liked the cocktail with 41 percent juice, even if it
was more tart.
"There are reasons why we can't have certain products," Camire says.
"For instance, the inability to add more raspberries in a cereal is not
because of technological or price problems, but because of sensory
acceptability. Sensory tests can tell us that most appealing balance."
Two decades ago, the food industry was all about "taste and looks.
Health didn't sell. People like sugar and fat," says Camire, a science
communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists. "Timing when
consumers are ready for something new is very important."
New value-added foods are important economic development initiatives.
For instance, in her seafood-based pasta research, Skonberg uses both
rock and Jonah crabs, which are the by-catch of lobster harvesting. In
addition, crab is an underutilized natural resource when it is
processed. Much of Maine's fresh crabmeat comes from licensed home-based
food processing businesses, where only about 10 percent of the steamed
crabs' body weight is picked by hand. In the UMaine laboratory using a
meat-bone separator, Skonberg found that 45 percent of the remaining
meat could be harvested for mince.
Ideas for seafood-based products like pasta came in a collaboration with
Robert Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the university.
Maine's crab processing industry funded the initial pasta research.
In fisheries or any other natural resource-based industry, it's critical
to go beyond sales of fresh products and look at frozen, value-added and
processed alternatives. With the support of the Lobster Institute,
UMaine food scientists did just that in 1999 by patenting a new process
to preserve the flavor and texture of frozen seafood, particularly
"Ability to sell frozen lobster and crab that maintain the texture and
natural flavor of fresh seafood gives the industry another option," says
Alfred Bushway, a professor of food science involved in the patent
research. "The frozen product will not have as much of an impact in
Maine, where fresh lobster is readily available, as it will in other
parts of the country, where there are significant losses with live
Other milestones in UMaine product development: the "invention" of the
blueberry raisin; studies of new apple varieties; research on potatoes
to improve frying, baking, boiling and processing quality; seafood-based
snack foods using calcium- and protein-rich crab; blueberry and
cranberry burgers to take advantage of the natural antioxidant
properties of the fruit to help preserve fresh flavor in frozen patties;
high-fiber flour made from potato peels that can be added to muffins,
cookies, breakfast cereals and other foods; antioxidant-rich blueberry
puree as an oil substitute in baked goods; and salmon pepperoni and
The latter, using trim from fresh or smoked salmon, was based on
research by Al Bushway and UMaine aquaculture major Doug Ewart in the
early 1990s. Salmon sausage was already on the market, but its quality
was poor because of the lipid oxidation in the fish, which is high in
saturated fat. The researchers worked with Maine's salmon industry to
find naturally occurring preservatives such as spice extracts to prevent
oxidation and increase shelf life.
When Ewart graduated, he and his wife, Cheryl, also a UMaine alum,
launched Out of the Blue, a company in Waldoboro, Maine, that still
makes salmon sausage.
"It's exciting to see a student with entrepreneurial background take a
concept and run with it," says Al Bushway. "We're always working with
new and existing Maine companies as they find their niche in the
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.