Penn State's football team may be hailed as the Orange Bowl champs, but around Penn State's Center for Food Innovation (CFI), they're known for their skill in another kind of test: the taste test. During the past four years, the football team has worked with the CFI and Franco Harris, former football player and now the president and CEO of Super Bakery Inc. (and a 1972 Penn State grad), to develop a flavorful new chocolate drink designed to help the body recover after an intense workout. Dr. Peter L. Bordi Jr., associate professor of hospitality management and director of the CFI, hopes their input will make a champion out of the balanced protein recovery drink, called Lionade.
Bordi is an enthusiastic supporter of Lionade, one of the newest products to come from the CFI, which is located in the School of Hospitality Management. Lionade will be available commercially in late spring through a limited distribution network that will include the U.S. Army.
New product development is only part of the work at Penn State's CFI. Founded in 2004 through the Ben Franklin Partnership program, the CFI is a unique cooperative research venture between the food industry and academia. The CFI provides solutions and support to emerging issues facing the food manufacturing and service industries: how firms grow as they address consumer concerns related to convenience, value, and health and nutrition in an increasingly competitive climate. Its activities involve interaction with partnering food industry enterprises.
Notes Dr. Hubert B. Van Hoof, director of the Penn State School of Hospitality Management: "The Center for Food Innovation provides a bridge between industry, government and academia under its banner of 'developing delicious foods that are good for you.'"
Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest food manufacturing state in the nation, and the industry contributes nearly $18 billion to the state's economy each year. "Our goal is to help Pennsylvania companies provide consumers with greater and healthier food choices, while also creating jobs to help the Pennsylvania economy," Bordi explained, adding that the CFI also works with companies in surrounding states.
Most Pennsylvania food manufacturers with fewer than 100 employees are considered small businesses; these companies lack the resources to maintain their own research and development divisions. The CFI helps serve this function.
"The Center for Food Innovation offers services so we can compete at the national and international level. This will help ensure the future of food manufacturing and the food industry in Pennsylvania," said Super Bakery Inc.'s Harris.
In addition, Bordi points out, because the CFI is an independent party, it is often in a good position to provide balanced, unbiased research.
When it comes to products involving fast-food savvy college students, impartiality is what a company needs. If there's one thing undergraduates know inside and out, it's the finer points of submarine sandwiches. So when the convenience retailer Sheetz wanted to test equipment for toasting sandwiches and heating pizza, it went to the CFI.
Under Bordi's guidance, undergraduate students performed a thorough and extensive test of a variety of commercial equipment proposed for use in the Sheetz Made-To-Order locations. Because Sheetz hires a lot of college students, the company wanted to ensure that the equipment was easy for them to use. Their analysis and hands-on testing provided the foundation for a $4 million equipment purchase.
"One of the most rewarding parts of my job is watching the students interact with executives in major corporations," said Bordi. "We've had great support from industry, and it's a pleasure seeing the students grow through these experiences."
University students, as well as adults from the community, also help in a sensory lab where they can taste products and provide instant feedback. This process is helping the CFI in its work fighting the obesity epidemic.
One recent study, conducted for SPI Polyols (a Delaware manufacturer of sweeteners), was designed to see how sugar preferences are determined, with the goal of identifying ways to reduce sugar consumption and, ultimately, caloric intake. During the study, college students and adults sampled a variety of products to enable the CFI researchers to develop a taste profile. Bordi believes that if they can work with companies to develop products with the preferred taste profile but with fewer calories, everyone will win.
"This collaborative environment encourages everyone--industry competitors, government and academic researchers--to sit down and really discuss the issues at hand," said Bordi. "Together, I believe we can develop a great model, not only for our state, but also for the nation as a whole."
In the meantime, Bordi is hopeful that Lionade will develop into a Nittany Lion-sized success story. His optimism prevails, despite the knowledge that 92 percent of all new products fail. After all, Lionade was made with the taste of champions.