Purdue University Reveals the Science Behind Popular Food

09:50AM Oct 02, 2019
Purdue Food Science
Purdue University's Food Science program is digging into the science behind food, a critical link between ideation and actualization of food.
( Russ Hnatusko )

The perfect pour is a science—a science that starts with making beer.

“This one is a little different than pouring most beers,” said Chris Johnson, president and owner of People’s Brewing Company, as he was filling up a glass with Boiler Black beer. “It’s a nitro, so like a Guinness.”

People’s Brewing Company bleeds gold and black, proof by the beer on display with a strong tie to Purdue University.

“This is the room where the Boiler Black beer was born,” said Erik Kurdelak, pilot plant manager for Purdue University Food Science.

Boiler Black is one of People’s Brewing Company’s most popular beers, and it was concocted on campus.

“It's a really exciting space for the students,” said Kurdelak.

The working classroom at Purdue University is where students get a taste of brewing beer, and even offers a fermentation sciences minor.

“When we do talk about fermentation sciences, alcoholic beverage is only a small slice, it's only a small piece of that picture,” he said. “When you think about the biochemistry, when we think about all the different work that goes into fermentation, the applications are very, very broad.”

From sausages to cheeses and breads, Kurdelak says it’s an art.

“There definitely is an art,” said Kurdelak. “When you look at the art that's really on the front end on that formulation, and if it's not repeatable, it's not science.”

The science is baked up in a nontraditional classroom: the Skidmore Laboratory.

“This is the food product development laboratory for the University food science, and in this classroom, it's a very active space,” said Kurdelak.

The classroom looks like a well-stocked kitchen, with state-of-the-art appliances and features. Kurdelak says the cooking space is where ideas become reality.

“This is actually the critical link between ideation and actualization,” he said. “You Ideate, and you say, ‘this is what I'd like to do. How do I actually get this onto the shelf?’”

The science digs into the formula behind the food in a unique way.

“The first step is to define your product scientifically,” said Kurdelak. “If somebody tells me they created a sauce, that doesn't really matter, as much as what is your pH? What are your color values? What is your salt content? Scientifically define that product in those ranges.”

A prime example of this is a recent accomplishment is a spicy jalapeno sauce the lab and students helped bring to market.

Kurdelak said a couple individuals concocted the sauce in the garage, selling it at a local farmer’s market. That was until Trader Joe’s approached them, wanting 40,000 jars of the sauce per month.

“The first step was to come to Purdue,” said Kurdelak. “When they came to campus, they were referred to food science, and we were able to help them understand the difference between a recipe and a formula, the difference between cookery and production.”

Students play a key role in turning an idea into a scientific reality—students like Stephanie Roth.

“I would like to be an engineer on the R&D team to see if a product is feasible, because it's cool to have a nice, new innovative product, but if it's not feasible to upscale and sell—and if the consumers don't want it—then there's no point trying to upscale in the first place,” she said.

Kurdelak says the findings and experiences students gain are lessons that will extend far beyond the classroom.

“I always say ‘we're not training the B team,’” he said. “These are the leaders of the food industry that are coming through Purdue Food Science.”

USFR 09/28/19 - Purdue Food Science