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Cornell wins $1.8 million USDA grant for packaging, beverage concentrate research

By Journal Staff


Cornell graduate student Josh Herskovitz conducts research on active packaging in the laboratory of food science professor Julie Goddard. (Photo credit: Cornell Chronicle)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University announced it has been awarded $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture for food science research projects.

The first project seeks to improve the commercial viability of a new food packaging material that reduces the need for preservatives, while cutting food waste, according to a Cornell online news release. The other university project improves juice and beverage production to keep the fresh taste in concentrates.

Rising food waste represents an emerging threat to the economic and environmental sustainability of the U.S. food system, Julie M. Goddard, associate professor of food science, contends. Consumers these days are looking for fewer preservatives and other additives to their foods, but this leads to food that spoils more quickly and needs to be thrown out.

“We’ve shown that you can introduce preservative functionality into packaging materials, so that we can reduce the additives in foods and beverages without losing product quality,” Goddard said in the Cornell release. These “active packaging” materials are a promising new technology, but technological hurdles and consumer-mindsets have so far prevented their successful commercial translation, she added.

Goddard and her team are research adding chelating agents — compounds that can sequester metal ions — to the jar or bottle of items like mayonnaise and salad dressing to make them last longer without preservatives.

“There is a lot of benefit in having fewer additives but gaining the preservative quality built-in to the package so they don’t migrate to the food,” she said.

Joining Goddard on this project will be co-principal investigators Randy Worobo, Cornell professor of food science, and Motoko Mukai, assistant professor of food science; David Just, professor of applied economics at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and Chris Ober, professor of materials science and engineering.

The researchers will work with consumers and producers to “ensure that the packaging material meets food-production, supply chain needs and that consumers are more likely to accept this new technology,” per the release.

The other Cornell research project funded by the USDA will look at using reverse and forward osmosis filtration and other cold processes to create “nutritious, high-quality and tasty juices and beverages in an energy-efficient way,” per the university.

Carmen Moraru and Olga Padilla-Zakour, both Cornell professors of food science, will lead the research effort. Project collaborators include Miguel Gomez, associate professor of applied economics at the Dyson School, and Robin Dando, associate professor of food science.

Juice processors currently use heat to create juice concentrate, but “heat changes the product’s nutritional and sensory profiles,” the researchers say.

“Our combination nonthermal process maintains product quality and makes the juice concentrate taste like it is fresh,” Moraru said.

Also, juice concentration consumes energy. “With this cold process technology, we can save energy and conduct the concentration at a fraction of the thermal evaporation cost,” she said.

The researchers will examine different filtration conditions for specific juices and other beverages. In addition to New York state fruit juices like apple and grape juice, the researchers will also study concentration of cold-brew coffee and tea.

Juice and beverage concentrates make sense from a financial perspective, Moraru said. “For commercial purposes, it is more economical to transport concentrate rather than move the added weight of water. Concentrate is economical and stable, while water makes juices more prone to degradation.”

The researchers will transfer the developed processes to industry stakeholders. “Ultimately, this work will benefit consumers and will help boost the competitiveness and sustainability of the U.S. food sector by reducing the energy in food processing,” Moraru said.

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