Foodies from Cal Poly Pomona, Chapman University woo taste buds, employers at ‘The Mars’

Most years, about 15,000 new processed food products hit American grocery stores. And, most years, American shoppers – finicky to the point of spoiled – ignore about 90% of them.

Yet as failure-driven as that sounds, the world of processed food is also unimaginably huge, accounting for about 75% of most American’s diets and worldwide sales of about $2 trillion a year.

And the job category of food science – the people paid to dream up, research, engineer, test, focus-group, market, name, package, spin-off, re-imagine and otherwise make processed food – is hot.

Wages are decent (about $77,000 a year), gender and racial equity is better than in many industries, and many, if not most, of the sector’s requisite skills aren’t in immediate danger of being wiped out by artificial intelligence. The U.S. Department of Labor projects annual job growth in food science and technology will average about 6% for the rest of this decade.

Still, for all of that, breaking into the food biz isn’t easy. Employers, like shoppers, are choosy. They want workers who know everything from chemistry to food safety and nutrition to manufacturing and marketing. They want something else, too; something less easy to define, but maybe more important than all the training combined – creativity.

Enter ‘The Mars.’

That’s shorthand for a processed food contest called the Mars Wrigley Product Development Competition, an event staged at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo since 1995. The idea is to find the best new food product created by student scientist teams from around the country. This year’s six finalists include two teams from Southern California, one from Chapman University in Orange and one from Cal Poly Pomona.

The Chapman team is pitching an energy drink it calls Spice of Life, a blend of milk and tea that tastes like vanilla chai and claims to help you think straight. Cal Poly Pomona’s entry is called Mango Sticky Bites, a dessert that blends mango-flavored mochi wrapping stuffed with coconut-flavored sticky rice, plus some tiny packets of sauce.

Mango Sticky Bites, is a delicious Asian fusion dessert that is inspired by two popular traditional Asian desserts, mango sticky rice and Daifuku. (Courtesy of California State Polytechnic University)

One immediate question about the contest is “why?”

The money (winners get $3,000 to split among up to 10 team members) isn’t big. The glamor (finalists get a free trip to Chicago, in late July) isn’t dazzling. And the effort (roughly 10 months of thinking, researching, cooking, freezing, thawing, designing, writing, talking and worrying, among other things) is off-the-charts high.

But the stakes, according to the very scientifically minded competitors, makes the “why” question easy to answer.

If you want to break into the world of food science and technology, making the finals in The Mars is a very big deal.

“It’s a calling card, I guess that’s the best way to put it,” said Estrella Mandujano, a 24-year-old food scientist from Hawaiian Gardens who specializes in flavorings and is captain of the team from Cal Poly Pomona.

“The product we’ve created is real. And we’re proud of it. And it’s something that I think will be helpful for all of us when it comes to getting jobs.”

The local competition agrees.

“Honestly, the payoff is just the real-world experience – and the exposure – that comes with developing a product, from start to finish, like you would for a company or a client,” said Taylor Thompson, a 26-year-old with a masters in food science and an MBA who is part of the Chapman team.

“Not everyone who participates in this wants to go into product development,” added Taylor, who this month started exactly that type of job with MoonGoat Coffee Roasters in Santa Ana.

“But the people in my group did, and do.”

What is food?

The contest will be held over two days during a food expo July 14-17 expected to draw more than 20,000 people from around the world, a crowd of scientists and employers and regulators and whoever oversees expo-only events such as the American Egg Board Eggcelerator Lab.

Like similar face-offs you might see on reality TV shows like “Top Chef” or “Shark Tank,” the contest melds two particularly slippery concepts; food and whatever constitutes a “good” or “bad” idea.

Of the two, food is actually the easier one to define.

On one level, food is nothing more than what a living being needs to maintain energy. And, when you’re thinking about food in this light, nobody questions that relatively un-processed foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, poultry, meat) are far better than highly processed food in terms of both human and planetary health.

But in the modern world food is bigger than that. All the processed stuff we eat because it tastes good or satisfies us emotionally or is simply cheap enough for dinner – stuff that doesn’t have to be bad for you, but often is – also counts. An egg is food. So is a Cheeto.

The local food competitors get that. They also admit it’s possible they’ll spend a career making stuff that some friends might criticize even as other friends gobble it up.

“I get that sort of thing all the time,” Thompson said. “It’s the first thing people talk about. People feel strongly about food, as they should.”

But Thompson and Mandujano both suggest their offerings are small steps toward bridging the food divide. Chapman’s Spice of Life drink is about 45 calories and has 5 grams of protein, plus it has ingredients described with adjectives like “cognitive” and “functional.” And Cal Poly Pomona’s Mango Sticky Bites come in a pack of six desserts, each of which is 70 calories.

“One thing you learn is it’s the dose, not the poison,” Thompson said. “A lot of the problem (with processed food) is about amounts and moderation, not just the food itself. As long as you have a varied diet you’ll probably be healthier.

“Food,” she added, “is an emotional thing, too.”

Which gets to the other concept tested by the contest: What, in the world of processed food, constitutes a “good” idea?

Generally the industry wants it to be something that tastes good and is legally safe to eat, is profitable for the company making it, and somehow captures the marketplace’s collective imagination.

Remember how the vast majority of new food products fail? Partly that’s because American consumers aren’t idiots. Recent short-lived ideas like Quaker Instant Oatmeal Sea Adventures (it turned blue when you added the hot water) and S’mores flavored Goldfish Crackers (the cheesy fish were dusted with chocolate/marshmallow flavoring) and Celery Jell-O (it was, yes, a vegetable-flavored gelatin) deserved the marketplace beheadings they eventually received.

But the 10% or so of food products that break through? Sometimes that happens because they’re tasty and nutritious. Or just tasty. Or they fill an un-met need in the market.

Or because American consumers sometimes are irrational.

Nitro Pepsi – a traditional Pepsi infused with the tinier bubbles of nitrogen instead of the big, gassy bubbles of carbon dioxide – is widely viewed as one of the bigger new food product success stories of recent years. After hitting the market in March of 2022, it’s carved out a following and its future is widely viewed as bright.

Why? Apparently because Nitro Pepsi tastes sort of…

“Flat,” if you ask Alicia Stearns, a recent UC Irvine graduate who said she’s tasted a Nitro Pepsi and deemed it “kinda gross.”

“If you had a party one night and picked up a random cup from your living room the next day, maybe around noon or so, and accidentally drank it, that’s what it tastes like.”

That’s only one consumer, of course. And PepsiCo. and others note that Nitro Pepsi – which, indeed, is designed to be less gassy (i.e., flatter) than traditional sodas – has received far more positive reviews from many others. It’s why the market research group FACT.MR projects sales of nitro-infused colas (Pepsi isn’t the only soda giant dabbling in tiny bubbles) will grow by about 22% annually over the next decade.

The lesson? What’s “good” and “bad” in the manufactured food world can be wildly incoherent. Ideas that sound lame in a product development meeting can make billions of dollars in real life. And ideas that sound utterly logical (Wild Cherry Jell-O? Why the heck not?) can disappear into the food product abyss.

And the reasons for food failure can be frustratingly random. Maybe a key ingredient disappears or spikes in price. Maybe regulations change. Maybe a word on the package is too odd, or the color of the package is too dark, or, maybe, America decides collectively that hot wing flavoring is so 2022.

Or maybe you find, in testing, that your product is too “oozy.”

Cal Poly Pomona food scientists from left: Estrella Mandujano, Jeremie Javellana (team captain), Chun Choi (in back row), Alexander Mathios, Camille McCurry, Daniela Moore (Alumni that was on last year’s winning team, standing in back row), Karoline Harrison – Team advisor/coach, Jane Wangjaya, and Nancy Siridachanon. The students will participate in IFTSA College Bowl competition at IFT First Convention in July in Chicago. (Courtesy of California State Polytechnic University)

Mandujano said that happened to her group at Cal Poly Pomona during early testing of the Mango Sticky Bites, a hurdle they solved by changing the type of stabilizing agent. It was a decision no consumer will notice, but could prevent people from needing to wash their shirts after dessert. It also might be the difference between success and failure in the market.

“This is just, in so many ways, a really complicated process,” she said.

Not so easy A

Both teams launched their products at the start of the just completed school year. Both hoped to get good grades in food product development classes, not win a contest.

Chapman University with its product, Spice of Life will be one of only six teams competing in the finals of the IFTSA and Mars Wrigley Product Development Competitions at IFT FIRST, the popular food science, technology, and innovation event hosted every year by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). Spice of Life, is a vanilla chai-flavored, shelf-stable ultra-high temperature, dairy-based wellness beverage.(Courtesy of IFT)

Thompson said her four-member Chapman team of graduate students initially was interested in creating a “cognitive wellness product,” and that it should be made of milk. They knew these things because their client was the California Milk Advisory Board.

Other than that, they were open. Particularly about what it – whatever “it” would wind up being – should taste like.

They debated the taste question internally for some time. Then, when they’d come up with a few possibilities, they turned to the market, asking potential customers (in this case Chapman students) to pick from three options: vanilla chai, blueberry muffin or a relatively new flavor described as “cereal milk.”

Taylor, who proposed vanilla chai to the team, was happy with the consumers’ choice.

“Coffee house flavors are really big right now,” she said.

Mandujano said her five-plus member team at Cal Poly Pomona made the decision to go with mango as a flavor internally; “we talked about it for two weeks.” But they used consumer testing to answer questions about everything from the product’s appearance (they wanted every layer to be visible) to its utility. Each frozen bite can be thawed for an hour or zapped in a microwave for 15 seconds before being eaten, a process they hoped wouldn’t be a deal breaker for consumers.

But every decision – what ingredients to use, how chewy should it be, what to call it – was based on dozens of survey questions, lab work, research and industry and/or scientific knowledge, among other things.

And a frozen product, like the Mango Sticky Bite, has follow-on questions: How long can it stay in a freezer before shifts in the surrounding water molecules affect the flavor or consistency of the product? What temperature(s) do ingredients need to be kept at before they’re used? How will the package appear when it’s on a freezer shelf near its competition in the mochi-style dessert category?

“Our professor… even advised us to change our product at one point because our idea was going to be very difficult to pull off,” Mandujaro said. “And she’d been working in R&D for many years before she started teaching.”

Making Spice of Life wasn’t any easier. Thompson said they researched, tested and used their skills as chemists and marketeers and even packaging designers. They also listened to several rounds of consumer testing.

“Consumers aren’t food scientists, but they’re still picking up on things. We’d hear comments like, ‘There’s a weird banana flavor in this,’ and we’d pay attention.”

When they were done, both teams turned in their class project products. Nobody flunked.

Then, earlier this year, after receiving positive reviews from teachers and others, both teams entered the contest in Chicago. That required a second step – a full-blown report on the business side of their food.

How will it be manufactured? Where will ingredients come from? What will the packages look like? And, critically, who’ll buy this stuff and how much will they be asked to spend?

Coincidentally, both products are aimed primarily at Asian-American customers younger than 40, with the belief that there could be broad follow-on demand from any age or demographic group. The Mango Sticky Bites will cost $3.99 a six-pack and the Spice of Life will run $4.29 a shot.

Much of the contest is about those reports. Judges from the food industry will hear pitches from each team and evaluate, among other things, how the teams solved problems, whether the products have any commercial appeal, and, yes, taste. Winners are announced during the expo’s closing ceremonies, July 16.

Stephanie Walaszek, who runs the student engagement division of the Institute of Food Technologists  and who helps oversee the contest, said the answers matter. But, she added it’s not a cliche, in this case, to suggest that just making the finals is actually a big deal.

As job interviews go, you can do worse than answering questions to determine the winner of a national contest.

“I don’t know if I’d call this contest the Super Bowl of anything,” she said. “But it’s a pretty great way to start a career.”

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