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Agriculture & Foods - Waiter! There’s a Blueberry in My Burger!

Denise Skonberg

UMaine food scientists develop products with the potential to benefit businesses and consumers

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 science laboratories.

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 of lobster.

“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 facilities grant.

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 nutrition.

Take cranberry juice cocktail. Most brands contain 27 percent cranberry juice, which is high in cancer-fighting antioxidants. Consumers 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 lobster.

“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 lobsters.”

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 sausage.

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 market.”

by Margaret Nagle

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