Inside the Food Labs

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There are a lot of different factors Micheale Kester has to juggle when she invents your next scoop of ice cream. Right now she's not as concerned about flavor or texture — although those are important — as she is about architecture. Kester, a food technologist in the Burbank, Calif., labs of ice cream giant Baskin-Robbins, has been fooling around with an idea for a flavor she calls Cinnamon Bun, but first she has to make sure the stuff will hold together. If you're not careful with the size and number of your chips, nuts or bun bits — what the ice cream techies call inclusions — even the densest scoop of the richest brand can fall apart. "Any inclusion larger than three-quarters of an inch may be too big," says Kester, scooping up a handful of cake pieces and tossing them into a bowl of white ice cream base. "Sometimes it's guesswork."

But Kester doesn't really have the luxury of guessing. Baskin-Robbins' trademark list of 31 flavors has expanded to almost 1,000 since the company was founded nearly 60 years ago. To keep that number growing, eight food technologists in the Burbank facility each come up with about 20 new flavor brainstorms a year; of all those, perhaps three or four make it to the big leagues. The shelves of canisters filled with Oreos, M&M's and other colorful inclusions that line the laboratory walls certainly keep the ideas flowing. So too does the dream of being the person who develops the next Pralines 'n Cream — perhaps the most celebrated member of the company's flavor roster. "It's a fun job," says Kester. "I get to play with food every day."

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Of course, play, as Kester is the first to admit, is only part of it. The food trade is a $500 billion industry in which uncounted new products jostle for space on overstocked shelves. Fully 25% of all meals are now consumed in restaurants, and of those eaten at home, two-thirds are either prepared entrees or restaurant takeout. With all that, Big Food has had to become Big Science. Companies that want to stay in the game can't afford to drift along with the same product line year after year until someone in R. and D. dreams up another Pop-Tarts or Pringles. Nor can they afford to have a good idea and then let it die from poor execution — simply that the corn in the corn puff was the wrong texture or the cavity in the cupcake crowded the filling.

As a result, the food industry has become a place where product design is micromanaged as never before — where flavors are built literally by the molecule, salt crystals are measured by the micron, manufacturers agonize over which side of a chip is the best place for the flavoring, and any new product under development must be focus-grouped and taste-tested down to its last scrap of fiber and last drop of corn syrup.

"The eating experience has so many different factors — smell, texture, taste and different combinations of all of those," says Nicole Ifcher, a marketing manager at Nestle. "If the idea doesn't resonate with consumers, they won't buy it."

Complicating things further is the speed with which American food fashions change. No sooner do manufacturers devise the perfect product for the perfect niche than new categories open up. What's a U.S. food company to do when Latino consumers--13% of the U.S. population and growing — begin clamoring for the aguas frescas and spicy tamarinds they grew up with? Where do foodmakers turn when kids — who never met a food they wouldn't prefer sweeter, saltier, chewier or bluer — create a whole new demand for so-called extreme flavors? And what do they do when all those new choices begin contributing to an exploding American obesity epidemic and the same people who have done all the consuming suddenly demand the foods they love in lower-fat formulations?

"I always look at what's missing in our portfolio," says Vida Leong, a food developer at Nestle's 3,400-sq.-ft. test kitchen in Glendale, Calif. "You have to ask, What are the hot buttons? And do we have a product that will fill that need?"

The Riddle of the McGriddle
Over the years, there is perhaps no company that has done a better job of pushing hot buttons than McDonald's — nor any company that has been better at transforming vaguely defined culinary arts into sharply defined food science. Witness the tale of the McGriddle.

For all the power and ubiquity of the McDonald's brand, the company always had a weak spot when it came to breakfast. The Egg McMuffin has been successfully wooing the breakfast crowd since 1973, but salty, savory foods touch only part of the morning palate. "We found that there was a real demand for sweeter breakfast foods," says Gerald Tomlinson, the company's executive chef.

Tomlinson's answer? An egg, sausage or bacon sandwich with pancakes instead of a bun. For a company that lives and dies by the one-handed-eat-behind-the-wheel-and-don't-drip-on-your-clothes meal, however, that presented problems. Tomlinson tackled the pancake puzzle in 1999 and first considered a muffin-shaped product with sausage bits stirred into the batter. But would consumers recognize a pancake with so unfamiliar a figure? And how do you add the syrup, the source of that all-important sweetness?

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