LSU AgCenter food scientist Luis Espinoza helped make Southern Art’s raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing into a shelf-stable product by making adjustments to the original recipe (bottle on left) so the ingredients would not settle but would be uniform throughout (bottle on right). This is part of what he does at the AgCenter Food Incubator. Photo by Olivia McClure
LSU AgCenter food scientist Luis Espinoza helps tenants at the AgCenter’s Food Incubator turn home recipes into products that can be marketed in grocery stores. Photo by Olivia McClure
News Release Distributed 04/22/14
BATON ROUGE, La. – Transforming home kitchen recipes into products that can be sold in stores involves more science than some people may realize. Fortunately for LSU AgCenter Food Incubator tenants, food scientist Luis Espinoza is on hand to help them do everything from keeping better records to making a product all natural.
The Food Incubator offers tenants the equipment and expertise they need to develop unique food products and get them on store shelves.
Many tenants come to the incubator so they can make and sell larger quantities of their products. Doing so requires scaling up their recipes, but it's not as simple as increasing an amount from two tablespoons to 40, for example.
Before work begins in the kitchen, Espinoza reviews with tenants the process of making their products step by step. In addition to recipe directions, Espinoza and tenants cover topics such as how they keep records, quality control mechanisms, recall plans and how much their recipe yields. Knowing each of these things is crucial, Espinoza said, because even small details matter if changes need to be made.
Next, Espinoza takes tenants to the kitchen to show them how to use and care for the equipment. They also discuss personal safety and hygiene.
When tenants begin working in the incubator kitchen, they first make a test batch that Espinoza analyzes and asks questions about. Often, consistency is an issue. For example, tenants unaccustomed to commercial food production may not know that temperatures and measurements must be followed precisely.
Espinoza helps tenants convert volume-based measurements to weight-based measurements. It is easy to lose count of tablespoons, for example, so it is better to measure ingredients by weight. It is sometimes a challenge to adapt, Espinoza said, but weighing ingredients ensures that recipes produce the same results every time.
Many trials are required when making significant changes to a product, such as making it all natural. Espinoza takes such a product to the lab and dissects it to identify potential replacements for certain preservatives and other ingredients that stores such as Whole Foods do not allow. Each time a tenant prepares a product using a new ingredient, Espinoza encourages him or her to take photos to keep track of color and thickness to preserve the product's general profile.
"Sometimes, the preservative that I intended to use is not compatible with one of the ingredients," Espinoza said. "That's when it becomes a little bit challenging because maybe that ingredient gives us a specific flavor note."
Maintaining a product's flavor profile is important, so Espinoza works with tenants to identify the best options.
"For example, you can't use real onions because at the end the onions lose a lot of water and make the product watery," Espinoza said. "So we look at alternatives: dehydrated, freeze-dried, onion powder and onion flavor. We try them all."
Tenants are involved every step of the way because they know their products and markets best. They are often curious and want to make their products better, Espinoza said, although some do not make any major changes to their recipes. For others, though, the incubator unlocks the door to innovation that improves products' marketability and commercial success.
"Some say, 'I go to the stores and see products that say they have fiber and have other properties that my product does not. Can my product do this?'" Espinoza said. "That's the type of information and innovation that they want to learn."