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Penn State research kitchen and Franco Harris team up for school breakfast programs|
by Matt Miller
For countless youngsters, watching Franco Harris rack up yardage while rushing for the Pittsburgh Steelers was the highlight of any given week. His football prowess is the stuff of legends, and his exploits on the field fueled the dreams of millions.|
Harris will soon affect the lives of a new generation of children, but this time it wont be through football. Its through his Super Muffin, which may become a tasty, nutritious mainstay on school breakfast menus.
Harris knows what it takes to win the Super Bowl, but when it came time for him to design his Super Muffin, the 1972 Penn State graduate turned to the Food Service Research Kitchen in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Recreation Management in Penn States College of Health and Human Development.
Knowing the quality of Penn States Food Service Research Kitchen and being a Penn Stater, it just made sense for me to want to work with the University, Harris, president and owner of Super Bakery Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pa., said. We want to be a company that is on the cutting edge, and were always looking for ways to keep improving the benefits of our products. Partnering with Penn State gives us this opportunity.
The Food Service Research Kitchen developed the U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) School Lunch Program, Child Care recipes and the Thrifty Food Plan, a market basket of foods that are relatively low cost and comprise a nutritious diet. Products developed by Dr. Carolyn Lambert, associate professor, and Dr. Peter L. Bordi, assistant professor, in the test kitchen are used to feed an estimated 55 million to 65 million people a day.
Products developed for the USDA School Lunch Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program have to meet specifications for the amount of food components, such as meat or meat substitute, vegetables, fruits and grains or breads. These products also are evaluated for the percentage of calories from fat and saturated fat. The research kitchen must work with these requirements to produce a quality product.
First you have to formulate a recipe that meets the USDA specifications. Then you have to formulate it to taste good. Thats the challenge, Bordi said. For the USDA programs, the recipes were taste-tested by a panel of staff, faculty and students. However, in their research for the Super Muffin, fifth-grade students from Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in State College tested the products.
Its the taste panel that develops the products. Product development requires a lot of sensory evaluation, Bordi said.
An ideal taster can identify characteristics of food. Many adults, Bordi said, have damaged taste buds and cant distinguish subtleties in food. Fifth graders make ideal tasters: Theyre old enough to recognize tastes, but not so old that their taste buds have been damaged by tobacco or coffee, for example.
Harris Super Muffin typifies the challenges associated with developing a new product. Even though the muffin will be produced commercially, its intended use is as a USDA school breakfast item. The muffin has to meet a minimum weight requirement and specific levels of nutrients. The research kitchen worked on developing the muffin for six months, making sure it was perfect, before children first tasted it.
The first time the children tasted it, they just didnt like it, Bordi said. We had pieces of fruit in it, and the children disliked those. Actually, well probably use that muffin for adults, but children just couldnt deal with it.
Bordi said products are typically tested at least 100 times before they are ready for menus. For children, it often involves making the taste similar to products that are familiar to them.
Most muffins you buy in the store have a smooth texture, so thats how kids expect them to be, he said. They have a frame of reference for just about every food item.
Most adults, on the other hand, will accept differences in taste. However, adults did not like the Super Muffin when it was served as a loaf instead of the typical round shape. Children, on the other hand, liked the loaf muffin better by a margin of two to one. They picked it because it was different. Maybe it was a form of rebellion, Bordi said. A large percentage also thought that it was a larger portion size, even though both muffins were the same weight. Adults want a muffin to look like a muffin, but they dont mind changes in texture. Children are finicky, but theyre very true to their beliefs. Even though the taste panel may not like something, certain ingredients must remain in order to meet USDA requirements. This can make creating new products a real challenge for the research kitchen.
Sometimes finding out why children dont like a product is like solving a mystery. They might say something is yucky, but are unable to say precisely what it is they find unappealing.
You have to be a bit of a detective, Bordi said. Once we developed a product, and the children really disliked one of the spices. In order to pinpoint the spice, we had to remove each spice and have them test it again. It turns out that most kids hated nutmeg. They could taste one-eighth of a teaspoon in 50 portions.
The Super Muffin faced another challenge in its development: It would be baked, frozen immediately, then thawed right before it was served. Even though it might taste fine right out of the oven, it had to be tested at the end of the whole process to make sure it retains its quality.
Although the taste-testing might be the most fun part of the process, the research kitchen must also make sure everything is measured correctly in each recipe, a tedious process done by graduate and undergraduate students.
Students are one of the best parts of the kitchen, Bordi said. Everything has to be weighed in grams. It has to be very exact. The students dont need much cooking experience, just patience. They have a lot to offer. They provide their input on the products, and its invaluable.
In addition to the Super Muffin, the researchers are working on a number of other products. They are developing products using concentrated cheese for the New Zealand Cheese Co. in Harrisburg, Pa. Concentrated cheese takes 20 pounds of cheese and concentrates it into one pound. It can then be used for salad dressings, cheese soup and other products.
Researchers in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Recreation Management also are doing interdisciplinary research with Penn States Department of Nutrition to put soy into products without it being detected. The researchers are using the taste panels to see at what point they can taste soy, which has a very strong taste.
Harris recognizes the importance of the Food Service Research Kitchen, and not just in the development of the Super Muffin. As president of Super Bakery Inc. in Pittsburgh, he has made a gift commitment of $150,000, half of which will benefit the Food Service Research Kitchen. The other half of the gift will be used to establish a scholarship fund for minority students enrolled in the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management program.
Francos emphasis with his donation is to support our research kitchen and provide scholarships for minority students, Bordi said. Hes really an amazing person. Hes always trying to do something for others.