Califonia Bountiful

Reinventing healthy eating

July/August 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Innovative foods and the team behind them

At the Healthy Processed Foods Research unit, USDA food scientists Tara McHugh and Roberto Avena-Bustillos, right, make sandwich wraps using edible films from NewGem Foods, which also makes vegetable- and fruit-based alternatives to seaweed, top left. USDA agricultural researchers have worked on other food innovations, such boosting the vitamin D of mushrooms, bottom left. Lab photo: © 2018 Manny Crisostomo

The idea was simple: Make a vegetable puree and turn it into an edible film that chefs could use in place of seaweed on sushi.

Armed with some of his favorite vegetables, a blender and a food dehydrator, Matthew de Bord, founder and president of Washington-based NewGem Foods, set out to bring his idea to fruition.

"I ended up making carrot Styrofoam," he said. "That's exactly what it tasted like. It was absolutely disgusting."

NewGem Foods uses fruit and vegetables such as carrots to make its edible films.

Turning to science

As an entrepreneur with a background in finance and business, de Bord acknowledged his naiveté when it came to food chemistry. That's why he sought the help of Tara McHugh and her team at the Healthy Processed Foods Research unit at the Western Regional Research Center in Albany. The center is one of five such regional outposts of the Agricultural Research Service, a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is the birthplace of many agricultural innovations.

McHugh's unit specializes in solving food-manufacturing conundrums, and works on a wide range of projects developing novel food products using cutting-edge processing technologies.

"A lot of the work we do is with small companies," she said. "It's part of our mission at USDA to help small businesses and help create jobs."

Also part of that mission is doing agricultural research—often in collaboration with private companies, organizations and universities—that serves a national benefit, whether that's helping Americans increase fruit and vegetable consumption, adding value to agricultural waste, making foods more healthful or boosting the marketability of certain crops.

The rationale behind creating the edible films, McHugh said, was to help people eat more fruits and vegetables by providing those products in new and different forms. For de Bord, the hope was to expand the appeal of sushi to those who may not like seaweed. Working together, they developed a "gentle dehydration process" that allowed the company to make films that preserve many of the vital nutrients in the fruit and vegetable purees.

"Essentially, Tara helped us create a new product category," he said. "It didn't exist before."

In addition to the sushi wraps, NewGem Foods also makes different versions and flavors of the films, including fruit- and vegetable-based sandwich wraps that replace tortillas and a seasoned glaze for meats. De Bord said he is in the process of launching a new savory hummus wrap made from garbanzo beans.

Zego fruit bars feature 100 percent pears, raspberries and other fruits.

Fruitful research

The impact of McHugh's team can be seen on supermarket shelves across the country. All-natural fruit bars may now be as ubiquitous as trail mixes, granola and other energy snack bars. But about 20 years ago, they were still a concept USDA researchers were perfecting, to increase fruit in people's diets. It was one of the first projects McHugh worked on.

The patented technology she and her team developed packed 100 percent fruit into single-serve bars without the use of fillers, preservatives or other artificial ingredients. The technology was later adopted by pear and apple farmers in Oregon and Washington, who were looking for ways to add value to fruit too small or oddly shaped to be sold for retail.

"Certainly, it was one of the first fruit bars on the market," McHugh said. "Now it's commonplace."

Today, San Francisco-based Zego uses the same technology to make its bars using fruit from California, Oregon and Washington.

ReGrained bars contain flour made from grains that have been used to brew beer.

Edible upcycling

Another of the unit's projects works to fight food waste. As a college student brewing his own beer, Dan Kurzrock, co-founder of ReGrained in San Francisco, was blown away by the amount of spent brewer's grains he was generating to make his favorite beverage: about 1 pound per six-pack.

"We saw an opportunity to make food," he said.

The spent grains, which come out of breweries wet and not very shelf-stable, have plenty of protein, fiber and other nutrients left over, Kurzrock said. He and company co-founder Jordan Schwartz, both UCLA alums, worked with McHugh to turn what was beer waste—traditionally hauled to farms to feed livestock—into a flour that could be used by other food companies for various applications. ReGrained already uses its own flour to make granola bars and plans to roll out other products next year.

"We call it edible upcycling," Kurzrock said. "We want to be the platform that closes this loop on the nutrition that's in brewer's grains and then feed the people directly."

The company collects grains from several San Francisco breweries, which Kurzrock said have a harder time recycling their grains because they are not located near farms that could take them.

"It's a nutritious end product that we'd like to get into the food stream," McHugh said.

Pop Oats' air-popped whole oat kernels can be eaten as a snack or with other foods.

Get popping

Another grain-based project has the potential to transform snacking choices. Oats in the form of oatmeal are already a breakfast staple, but Rodger Morris, co-founder of Pop Oats, said he would like to see people eat more of them—and not just in cookies and granola bars.

The California startup currently calls the USDA facility in Albany its home base, as that is where it does most of its work. It is there that Morris and company co-founder Marc Pfeiffer make their savory oat snacks. They take whole oat kernels and air-pop them, using a process they developed with McHugh's team, then season the grains with flavors such as barbecue, sea salt and vinegar, and chili lime. Air-popping the oats gives them a crunchy texture, similar to popcorn, corn nuts and sunflower seeds, Morris said.

"Most oats are rolled or steel cut," he said. "I jokingly say no oats were harmed in the making of our product. We use the oats just as nature gave them to us."

Despite their healthful attributes, McHugh said oats are limited in most people's diets to breakfast cereal.

"This is an opportunity to get oats in the diet more as a snack," she said. "It's a great product. It's simple and healthy."

Ripple pea beverage, top left, cricket powder, top right, and vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms, below, are some food products that USDA helped to perfect.

A new protein option

Some of the team's current projects are on the cutting edge of food trends. For those looking to add more protein to their diet, eating bugs—crickets, specifically—could be an emerging alternative.

"We like to call them the most sustainable livestock on the planet," said Jared Ginn, who's in charge of processing and nutrition development for Tiny Farms, a cricket-rearing operation in San Leandro that's turning the insects into snacks and powders.

The company has been working with McHugh to develop more efficient ways to roast and dry the crickets, and then mill them into powder. Ginn said the company had been using a conventional oven, which isn't very energy-efficient "because you're heating air."

Tiny Farms already sells its crickets to Oaktown Crickets, which makes fried crickets sold at Oakland Athletics baseball games. Berkeley-based Jiminy's makes dog treats using the farm's cricket powder. The powder is also being used as a protein supplement and could be added to foods such as dry pasta, chips, energy bars and pastries to boost their nutritional composition, Ginn said.

Ripples and waves

Not all the projects USDA researchers work on are developed from scratch. Some companies look to their expertise to improve products already on the market. For example, McHugh and her team worked with Berkeley-based Ripple Foods, which makes a pea beverage, to further refine the flavor and remove some of the beany notes. They're also looking at ways to make a dry version of the milk, which could reduce transportation costs.

McHugh's unit also teamed with Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville to develop a process that boosts the amount of vitamin D in mushrooms. The process involves ultraviolet light, which converts a compound found in mushrooms to vitamin D.

"The same thing happens if you put the mushroom in the sun, but if you put it under a UV light, it happens more quickly," she said.

Today, the company uses this technique to produce mushrooms that provide 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D. It also makes a mushroom powder that performs as a dietary supplement.

"This is a good example of how processing can improve healthfulness of food," McHugh said.

Ching Lee

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