BOZEMAN — Montana State University Culinary Services staff noticed in recent years that students in one of the university’s dining halls weren’t eating as many pancakes as expected.
The pancakes were made from a mix by Cream of the West, a company based in Harlowton in central Montana. Cream of the West employees and Culinary Services staff guessed that the pancakes were drying out after they were placed under a heat lamp. The lamp kept the pancakes warm for the students, but it seemed that it also led to a lack of moisture and made the pancakes less appealing.
Alicia Moe, general manager and principal owner of Cream of the West, turned to MSU professor Wan-Yuan Kuo for help. Moe had recently met Kuo – who leads MSU’s new Food Product Development Laboratory – at an event showcasing foods made in the state. Kuo said the lab might be able to help improve the product. Moe – whose company’s pancakes were served at MSU through the university’s Farm to Campus program that works to increase the amount of locally sourced food offered at the university – asked Kuo to give it a shot.
But, there was a catch: Moe said Cream of the West clients love the pancake mix because it has seven types of whole grains and only water needs to be added to it. So, she asked Kuo and her students to improve the pancake texture – but not to change the recipe itself.
In the lab, student Kathryn Hilburn set to work. There, Hilburn – a Presidential Scholar and chemical engineering student – found something unexpected, Kuo said: that the pancake’s moisture levels actually were on par with the moisture analyses of pancakes made of other similar mixes. But, Hilburn also found that the pancakes had a coarse texture that made it seem as though they were dry.
Hilburn began working to modify the pancakes’ microstructure and presented different versions of the pancakes to Kuo and her fellow students at lab meetings. There, Kuo and the students completed informal evaluations and gave verbal feedback. Slowly, Kuo said, the product’s scores began to improve.
“That’s informally how a food product development team works,” said Kuo. “It’s sensory development combined with an engineering approach.”
Ultimately, after a semester of trials, Hilburn didn’t end up changing the mix’s recipe or moisture levels at all, Kuo said.
“But she was able to improve the texture so that when people taste it, it is more appealing,” Kuo said. “People like it much more than the original recipe.” The group recently conducted a formal consumer test with 123 people to taste and score the revised product. The test results showed significant improvement from the original product.
The pancake mix project is one of several that students from diverse disciplines are conducting through their work in the Food Product Development Lab, which is part of the College of Education, Health and Human Development’s hospitality management program.
Started in 2017, the hospitality management program in the Department of Health and Human Development prepares MSU students to become skilled professionals within the expanding local, regional, national and global hospitality industries. Students choose from one of three degree options: food enterprise, lodging and facilities management, and restaurant management: farm-to-table.
The curriculum focuses on work in food and nutrition, culinary arts, business and agriculture as well as hospitality-specific course work emphasizing sustainability and quality customer service across the hospitality industry. All options have practicum courses for skill development and field-based courses that integrate problem-based learning and service learning through community engagement. Additionally, all options include internships to ensure that graduates have sufficient practical experience to be prepared and competitive for job placement.
Another company with which the Food Product Development Lab is working, Gluten-Free Prairie based in Manhattan, Montana, would like to tweak the recipe for its granola that has been served in MSU dining halls through the university’s Farm to Campus program, Kuo said. Kuo said the granola’s taste is good, but its texture has been problematic.
“It got so brittle that it turned into powder so fast after transportation and handling,” she said. Kuo said the company asked the lab to look into modifying the recipe so that the clusters remain intact and the taste remains the same. Chemical engineering student Simone Paul is working in the lab to do just that.
In addition, Kuo said, two graduate students, Mehmet Turker and Sharon Li, are working in the lab to develop organic lentil crackers using red lentils from Ulm-based Timeless Seeds. Another graduate student, Edwin Allan, is using a community-based participatory research method to develop a culturally sensitive peanut product with rural farmers in Senegal.
The partnership between local companies and the MSU lab could enable Culinary Services to use more local foods, according to Kara Landolfi, MSU Farm to Campus coordinator. She noted that MSU currently uses products from more than 100 local food companies in its operations.
“We are enthused to incorporate an ever-increasing amount of local foods, but we also strive to offer high-quality ingredients as well,” Landolfi said. “So, with the potential for Montana businesses to work with the lab to craft the highest quality product that they can, using science as a driver, more Montana products may reach the market that we can integrate.”
Moe noted that Cream of the West simply doesn’t have the resources or skills to complete the work that the students undertake in the lab.
“With a small company, you’ve got so many plates spinning, you don’t have time,” she said. “To have the opportunity to have someone put time and effort into (our product development) means a lot to us.”
Kuo said the collaboration between MSU and the local companies is beneficial to students because it provides them valuable, real-world learning experiences. In turn, the collaboration also has the potential to help local companies improve their products and achieve their goals. It’s also beneficial to MSU, Landolfi noted.
“Creating cost efficiencies for these higher quality goods helps enable large entities, such as institutions like MSU, to invest in Montana’s food economy, while also providing high-quality foods that customers are demanding,” Landolfi said. “At that point, it’s a win-win-win for MSU investing in high-quality local foods to our customers, our customers’ ability to enjoy the foods and Montana’s local food economy.”
Kuo said that the lab will be expanding its services in the future. She recently received an approximately $187,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help purchase an industrial-scale extruder, which enables mass production of food and helps ensure that the final product is consistent. The equipment – which may arrive as early as next spring – will enable Kuo and others in the lab to experiment with a wider range of food products, such as lentil-based noodles.
“Montana currently ships out 90 percent of what is grown without any processing and then imports 80 percent of processed food needed with the state,” Kuo said. “We hope having the first food extrusion service in Montana will encourage more Montana businesses to invest in value-added processing in our community. We have so much we can do for Montana’s local food economy.”