The first-ever “toaster pizza.” Leak-proof tortilla pockets that enable tidier burritos. Edible stirrers, made of cookies, that flavor your morning coffee.
These and other novel products, developed by annual teams comprising food science undergrads and grad students, have led Cornell to multiple wins at a major industry competition. Overseen by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Student Association, the contest attracts aspiring food scientists from around the country. Since 1995, the University has claimed the top prize an unprecedented six times–three of them in the past four years. This spring, the current team learned it had been invited to the 2016 finals–offering the hope of a seventh title.
In 2014, Cornell’s IFT team won with “Popples,” a snack bar made of apple pomace–a part of the fruit, left over from juicing, that’s usually discarded–mixed with caramel and peanut butter. The previous year, it took first with “Squashetti,” a frozen entree of chicken and tomato sauce served over noodles made of squash rather than pasta–making it gluten free and lower-calorie. The year before that, it won with “Dough TEMPtations,” snacks made of cookie dough and fruit; unlike regular cookie dough, they lacked raw eggs and were therefore safe to eat.
This year, a team of eleven students aims to continue the winning tradition with “BanaNut Bites,” a banana sponge cake with a peanut butter glaze. Like Popples, it uses a main ingredient that’s normally discarded: banana peel. “It was definitely a challenge getting the banana peels to taste good in the cake,” says team member Brenda Margolies ’15, a grad student. “We baked them, blended them, sautéed them, caramelized them. I ate more banana peels during those sessions than any one person should eat. It was really exciting once we finally got it to work.”
It was definitely a challenge getting the banana peels to taste good in the cake,’ says grad student Brenda Margolies ’15. ‘We baked them, blended them, sautéed them, caramelized them.
With the cake out of the way, the team focused on the topping. Initially, they opted for a coating made of peanut butter powder; but after conducting multiple taste tests, they decided it was too messy. “We knew from past competitions that the judges would be critical of that, so we switched to the glaze,” says team co-captain Jessica Kwong ’18. “The only problem with the glaze is that consumers will look at it and think it’s unhealthy. So we’re going to have to work on that.”
At the finals, to be held in Chicago in mid-July, the Cornellians will go up against five other teams, including those from Penn State, Virginia Tech, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They’re currently fine-tuning the recipe for BanaNut Bites–which the judges will sample–as well as preparing the rest of their entry, which includes oral and PowerPoint presentations and a poster session. Since the competition takes place at a major food science conference–which draws some 20,000 academics, students, and industry professionals–many Cornell faculty will be there to cheer them on. “It’s a source of pride for us,” says food science department chair Olga Padilla-Zakour, PhD ’91. “The students have positive attitudes and very good technical skills; that’s how they do so well. We see this competition as being valuable to our students’ development–not only for professional growth, but because we can see how the education we’re providing really pays off.”