Who would have thought up pomegranate bread? How about that sports drink in your hand or the hot pocket you had for lunch – do you know where your food came from?
Welcome to where a kitchen stops being just another room in your house or apartment and turns into a laboratory.
“It’s cold in here for a reason,” said Dr Alyce Akers, chair for the department of family and consumer science, as she showed off the department food chemistry laboratory. “We are trying to inhibit bacterial growth.”
“The equipment in this lab can tell you how much vitamin C an orange has or how much fat it contains,” Akers said.
The machines help students in the food chemistry lab examine how much vitamins, minerals or fat a specific food product contains by burning the food and then analyzing the ashes.
Students in the food science department do research for manufactured products as well, Akers said.
“CSUN did the research for hot pockets but that was years ago,” she said.
There are two different types of food labs in Sequoia Hall: the food chemistry lab, which is only open to juniors, seniors and graduate students, and the food science lab, Akers explained.
The food chemistry lab looks like your average science lab but instead of trying to decode DNA, the scientists in this lab are working on nutrient evaluation, and experimenting with “functional foods,” for example a fat substitute.
The food science lab, on the other hand, is a room with four kitchens – two each of residential- and restaurant-style. There are also a couple of booths designed for sensory evaluation (consumer taste testing), and a few classroom desks.
The sensory evaluation booths are used by the product development class. The booths are equipped with alternate lights to block out color, or have complete darkness. The booths are positioned so that the volunteer cannot see or hear what is going on in the kitchen, and there is only a small window which is used to pass the food through.
Professor Sylvia Holman explained that sometimes changing the lighting is necessary to prevent the tester from being influenced by the color of the food, or to prevent color from becoming a factor in the test.
Whenever the product development class is going to have a consumer taste test they post flyers around Sequoia Hall, but know that the experience “is kind of like being in jail. All you see at times is just a pair of hands and a lab coat,” Holman said.
The food science lab also helps interior design students test and see different style of kitchens. One of the kitchens looks like your average residential kitchen with the granite countertop and drawers, but one of the drawers is actually a freezer. The kitchen is also adapted so that someone in a wheelchair can have full access to all its features.
The restaurant-style kitchen can turn out an average of 400 meals a day.
“You don’t need a lot of space, you just need to be organized,” said Dr. Allen Martin, professor of consumer affairs.
The appliances in the food science labs are donated by the manufacturers so that the students can test the appliance and help manufacturers get an idea as to how efficient and marketable the product is and what the price range should be.
For example, Martin explained, Thermador donated an oven to the department. The oven could cook a 30-pound turkey in 35 minutes. The problem was that the company couldn’t quite work out all the bugs so that the company could lower the $7,000 price tag of the oven; therefore, the oven never went on the market.
“They have a great set up,” said Linda Vickers, nutrition instructor at Moorpark College.
Vickers was auditing Holman’s food science lab on Sept. 29, and explained that she is trying to get a course like Holman’s started at Moorpark. Vickers explained that it is going to take at least one to one and a half years to get the course in place.
Holman’s class that day was experimenting with different methods of boiling and poaching an egg, melting cheese, seeing the effects of mixing an acid like tomato juice with milk at different temperatures, and comparing an egg white omelette with a regular omelette.
The students were broken up into groups and then they busily found their way around the kitchens to get their ingredients. Who would have thought so much concentration and four people were needed to boil eggs?
Angelica Gonzales, a nutrition and dietetics major who hopes to pursue a career in clinical nutrition and work for a hospital, said that “if you don’t have any experience cooking, it can be a little bit scary, but it’s exciting too.”
The food science department at CSUN offers many career opportunities to students. While dieticians don’t tend to be famous, Akers mentioned CSUN alumna Carrie Latt Wiatt, who went on to start her own company, Diet by Design, and has published many books.
However, the newer trends in careers are bioterrorism and food safety, Martin said.
He said that right now, bioterrorism and food safety are growing career fields because they are trying to have a network in place where food can be tracked from the consumer, to the grocery store, to the supplier, to the manufacturer.
Martin and Akers pointed out the recent spinach and E. coli situation; they said the outbreak was tracked to the farm. Martin and Akers explained that the problem here was that E. coli comes from living things, for example a cow that is on the farm. In the end they realized that the problem was that the groundwater was infected with e coli by the cattle that graced in distant fields.
The food science department offers students the opportunity to pursue careers in nutrition and dietetics, food sales management, and hospitality, among other subjects. The department also gives students the chance to compete in a food industry conference where they put what they have learned in the classroom and incorporate it into something they would be doing out in the real world.
On Jan. 10, CSUN won the 19th Annual Southern California Food Industry Conference Bronze award. This competition has the students work with a “functional food” and incorporate it in the creation of a new food product.
One year, Akers explained, the functional food was pomegranate juice. “The students came up with pomegranate bread, which was very delicious.”
Another year, Martin explained, students came up with tortilla soup, for which the consumer had two options. They could have the soup with the tortillas being soft, by microwaving the soup with the tortillas in it or heating the soup and then adding the tortillas and have the tortilla soup with crunchy tortillas in it.
While dieticians don’t tend to be famous Akers mentioned CSUN alumna Carrie Latt Wiatt, who went on to start her own company Diet by Design and has published many books.
The students in the food science department know exactly where your food came from and what is in it, because chances are people just like them conjured it up in their labs, or they have the network in place where they can track that orange you had to the grower. One thing is for sure these students have a very promising future because, like Martin said, “We all have to eat.”