Linda F. Benedict, McClure, Olivia J.
Scientist turns home recipes into food products
Transforming home kitchen recipes into products that can be sold in stores involves science. 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 volumebased 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.
“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.”
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 the product’s marketability and commercial success.
Researcher tries to make sugarcane resistant to brown rust disease
Brown rust fungus poses a serious threat to Louisiana’s nearly $1 billion sugarcane industry. Thanks to funding from the American Sugar Cane League, LSU AgCenter molecular biologist Niranjan Baisakh is studying DNA markers in sugarcane associated with resistance to the fungus. He hopes to help sugarcane breeders develop varieties that block the fungus at the molecular level.
The fungus, which creates orange to reddish brown lesions on sugarcane leaves, is spread by spores that blow through the wind. The lesions’ damage prevents leaves from collecting enough light to effectively perform photosynthesis. Thus, the plant cannot produce sufficient energy to grow and be healthy.
Baisakh said the yield of nonresistant cane varieties can be reduced by 20 percent to 50 percent.
Scientists have been studying sugarcane resistance to brown rust fungus for more than 20 years, Baisakh said, but a gene called Bru1 is the only indicator of resistance located so far in sugarcane. The frequency of Bru1 in Louisiana sugarcane varieties is low, meaning it has not been used effectively as a means of breeding resistant varieties, he said.
However, there are some varieties that are resistant to the fungus that do not contain Bru1.
Baisakh’s goal is to track DNA characteristics of fungus-resistant varieties to determine genetic components of resistance. Once resistance genes besides Bru1 are discovered, varieties containing them can be crossed with those with Bru1 to form “gene pyramids” that force the fungus to overcome multiple genes instead of one.
It is important to identify these alternate resistance genes because brown rust fungus often adapts to sugarcane varieties as acreages increase.
“If you have just one variety planted and it is resistant, then the fungus has the ability to adapt and overcome resistance because the fungus has no known alternative host,” Baisakh said. “You can’t depend on just one resistance gene.”
Baisakh works closely in this effort with other AgCenter researchers – Jeff Hoy, Collins Kimbeng, Michael Pontif and Kenneth Gravois – and Anna Hale, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma.
Louisiana wheat crop does well despite cold
Recent high winds could cause lodging problems for the state’s 175,000 acres of wheat, but otherwise the crop is doing well after coming through a cold, wet early spring, according to LSU AgCenter wheat specialist Josh Lofton.
“Overall, it’s fantastic,” he said. “I haven’t talked to any farmers who said they are disappointed with their crop.”
Lofton said wheat in south and central Louisiana is further along, making it more vulnerable to falling over, or lodging, from high winds. But he said most of the wheat in those areas is planted on flat ground, and that makes harvest easier in contrast to the raised beds more commonly used in north Louisiana.
Disease pressure is the lightest in many years, he said. Fungicides are not allowed on wheat after flowering, but disease after that stage usually has minimal effects. “Right now it’s a race between the disease and the wheat.”
But wheat prices are good, ranging from $5 to $6 a bushel, he said. Some of that is because of a cold winter and political turmoil in Ukraine as well as a hard, late-winter freeze in the Great Plains.
Cold temperatures hit the Louisiana crop also, but the effects will be minor, Lofton told more than 100 people at a wheat and oat field day at the AgCenter Macon Ridge Research Station on April 16.
Lofton said the mid-April cold snap came at a vulnerable growth stage for wheat north of Alexandria and slowed the crop’s growth. He said the late harvest will delay soybean planting on fields that are double cropped.
Of the estimated 175,000 acres planted, Lofton expects the actual harvest will be in excess of 150,000 acres. “We probably lost quite a bit of the acres because of the temperature and moisture,” he said.
He said the early-planted crop will be affected most by the overall winter and spring weather, but the recent cold front should only cause superficial damage to most fields. “For the most part, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
LSU AgCenter wheat breeder Steve Harrison showed test plots of varieties and experimental lines of oats and wheat. He said the LSU AgCenter is one of only four universities to have an oat breeding program. The others are University of Florida, North Carolina State University and Texas A&M. The four universities work together under the Sungrains cooperative to develop new oat varieties
Some oat varieties are bred for deer plots while others are intended for livestock feed or grain.
A new oat line, FL 7020 R6, could be released by the LSU AgCenter and the University of Florida for cattle forage, Harrison said. “This is a really exciting oat because of its excellent forage potential and resistance to rust.”
Harrison showed several test plots of varieties and experimental lines. Farmers should adjust planting times according to maturity differences, he said. “The late varieties need to be planted a little early the early varieties need to be planted a little late.”
Harrison said an LSU AgCenter variety sold as Terral LA841 has been a proven performer with good disease resistance for many years and has unique stripe rust resistance that is being studied by graduate students.
(These articles were published in the 2014 spring issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)