Sponsored By

Instant GratificationInstant Gratification

September 1, 1999

21 Min Read
Instant Gratification

Food Product Design

Instant Gratification
September 1999 -- Cover Story

By: Ann Juttelstad
Associate Technical Editor

  The need for speed places many demands on the food product designer these days. That, along with the need for idiot-proof prepared foods, means that industrial, foodservice and retail consumers are all clamoring for just-add-water convenience while insisting on made-from-scratch flavor and texture.  Enter the world of instant meals, where a cup, gallon, or kettle full of hot water and a bag, box or carton of seemingly simple dry ingredients combine to make gourmet sauces, super soups, instant casseroles and dreamy desserts.  "Ideally, consumers want to walk away from a meal thinking that they, or the restaurant staff, just made it," says Kent Crosby, group leader of soups, sauces and gravies for Innova, a Griffith Laboratories Company located in Oak Brook, IL. This idea leads product designers to continue seeking ingredients that will give the "just made" flavor and texture.   Many manufacturers start with a gold-standard prototype when developing a sauce, soup or dessert for instant adaptation. "This way we are able to identify the flavor characteristics that a customer expects, then we work backward to achieve the right profiles," says Christine Carr, senior director of marketing, Griffith Laboratories, Alsip, IL.Starting with starch  The backbone of many instant formulas is starch. Starch selection depends on hydration rates, temperature, holding qualities and shear requirements. Also, textural properties and clarity must be considered when choosing a starch.  "Hydration requirements depend on how quickly the instant starch must attain full viscosity," says Chris McBride, applications specialist, convenience foods, Cerestar USA, Hammond, IN. Other ingredients in a formula may affect the hydration rate, including the presence of fats and oils, sugar, salt and protein. "Selecting the right instant starch includes defining the functional and aesthetic needs of the product; establishing the hydration requirements; determining the dispersion needs; considering the processing conditions; evaluating shelf-life requirements; and addressing product reconstitution and use by the consumer," says Linda Charlton, applications chemist, Cerestar USA.  Pregelatinized starches, which have been precooked and dried, may deliver a long cohesive texture or a short, pulpy texture, depending on the type of base starch and the processing conditions. They may be opaque or clear. Depending on the amount of crosslinking and the degree of cook, these starches can be processed to be acid- or shear-stable, says McBride. Through modification processes, freeze/thaw- or shelf-stable starches can be produced.  A starch's granulation affects its hydration rate. Coarse starches take longer to hydrate, but achieve a thicker viscosity; finer granulations thicken up more quickly and maintain a more consistent texture over time. Agglomerated products are used when there are dispersion problems, says McBride. Agglomerated products and large granulation starches can be used to match the particle size of the other ingredients, an important characteristic for mixing and proper rehydration. McBride also points out that starches are available with various moisture contents that affect the flowability of the product (hygroscopic control).  "Wheat starch," says McBride, "may offer a wheat flavor to the product, which is desirable in gravies. However, it is cloudy and retrogrades (waters off) and cannot be used in puddings or delicately flavored items. Tapioca starch forms a soft gel and has a clean flavor, and is often used in pudding or cheese mixes. Corn starches are a versatile alternative to these starches because they do not have an overbearing flavor; they are modified to meet various texture requirements and they are very cost effective."  Cold-water-soluble starches provide a creamy mouthfeel and short texture, even during steam-table holding. In addition to instant dispersability, many starches also need to be freeze/thaw stable, as processors look to instant mixes to produce sauces and condiments that will eventually go into frozen meals. Modified waxy-maize starches can provide both the texture and stability for these applications, as well as soup-cup products.  Potato starch, flours and flakes can be an effective thickener for instant soup and casserole blends as well. "Potato flakes and flour readily absorb water and don't necessarily require boiling or extremely hot water," says Nick Ross, QA and technical service director, Oregon Potato Co., Warden, WA.  Potato flakes are made by precooking potatoes, quenching them, then steaming them before drying in a drum dryer to a moisture level of 6% to 8%. The dried sheet is broken up and then ground to a specific density as required by the customer, says Ross. The largest size flake the company produces is a 5/8-inch milled product, while the smallest is a coarsely ground flour.  Precooking and quenching help prevent stickiness, resulting in a product that can be reconstituted into mashed potatoes. Fine grinding produces a moderately sticky substance. Another type of potato processing employs only steam cooking, and the potato is generally ground into flour. This end product is stickier. Adding mono- and diglycerides to the potato mixture before drum drying ensures that the dried potato releases from the dryer, and improves the reconstituted product. Mono- and diglycerides also combine with the free starch in the potato slurry and prevent the end product from being excessively sticky.  Other additives include: sodium bisulfite to inhibit browning; sodium acid pyrophosphate to inhibit graying (color control); BHA and BHT to inhibit oxidation and to preserve flavor; additional color to achieve the golden color currently popular with consumers; spices; and vitamins. However, the only required additive, says Ross, are mono- and diglycerides. He recommends claiming these on the label statement: "It isn't just a processing aid, but a functional ingredient."  In addition to starches, gums and blends of gums improve the texture of some sauces. Gums can help inhibit skin formation on top of a sauce, though some product designers find that the skin gives more of a homemade appeal. During rehydration, warns McBride, gums and starches compete for the available water, but this can often be overcome by adjusting the blend.The Goldilocks factor  In instant products, the temperature of the water applied to the product is critical. "Most foodservice operations have a Bunn machine (a commercial-quality coffee maker and water heater) or steam kettles that are used to rehydrate instant sauces," says Carr. "These machines deliver water at about 180°F, so our sauces must perform at that temperature. Adding boiling water (212°F), can cause 'fish eyes,' so we recommend that water from a steam kettle be left to sit for a bit to cool down to 180°F. Additionally, these products are typically held at 160°F on a steam table for a maximum of four hours. These are tough conditions that the starches and flavors must perform under." McBride recommends a starch with some crosslinking for use in steam-table-stable mixes.   Potato flakes reconstitute at much lower temperatures than other starches, around 160°F. Hotter water may make the product gummy. Powdered gold  Cheese powders in instant soups and casseroles can contribute viscosity, texture and flavor, says Tom Rieman, business manager, Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN. "Cheese sauce is basically a flavored white sauce," he says. "We use high-intensity cheeses to make a better flavor impact at a lower cost to the customer." He recommends a careful examination of cost-in-use of expensive cheese powders. For example, 1.5 lbs. of processed cheese will yield 1.0 lb. of spray-dried cheese powder. Cream cheese yields 1 lb. dried product per 2 lbs. natural cream cheese. At a typical usage level of 10% in a formula, food product designers need to determine the cheese level's impact on a pound-for-pound basis. Often, cheese flavors can reduce the amount of cheese needed in a product, while delivering the needed taste at a reduced cost.  Cheese flavors have the additional benefit of bringing other elements to the food product. "Flavors can be blended with spices and other components to make premium products," says Rieman. "We are moving beyond convenience by adding the flavors of cooking to add dimension."  Other dairy ingredients such as cream and whey products can add flavor and texture to instant meals. "However, ingredients that are high in lactose should be avoided if a product is meant to be held on a steam table," says Donna Immel, R&D director for Griffith Laboratories. "Prolonged holding at steam-table temperatures can turn high-lactose ingredients brown."The meat of the matter  Spray-dried meat powders and broths can bring flavor to an instant meal mix. These reconstitute easily and are fairly economical, says Phil Hutchinson, director of research and development, International Dehydrated Foods (IDF), Springfield, MO. Some meat powders may lump or turn sticky with hydration because of protein denaturization during processing. But, says Hutchinson, when the product is blended with salt, sugar, MSG and/or dextrose, as in a complete meal mix, this isn't normally an issue. Liquid meat extracts may be plated onto a matrix of salt, dextrose or maltodextrin during production blending, or they may be purchased as a spray-dried or drum-dried product.   "On the particulate side," says Hutchinson, "freeze-dried meats rehydrate more readily than air-dried, which may take three to four minutes." Lean meats are selected for freeze-drying, because muscle tissue and fat do not freeze-dry well simultaneously. The higher cost of freeze-dried meats over air-dried may be prohibitive in some applications, but freeze-dried meats have the added appeal of good particle identity and instant reconstitution.  Beef, chicken and turkey are a mainstay in instant meal offerings. These products are generally used in 1/4-inch to 3/8-inch dice sizes, says Sue Haar, freeze-dry support manager for Hanover Foods, Lancaster, PA, because of their quick rehydration in hot water. "Anything much larger than that won't reconstitute fast enough," she says.  Freeze-drying meats, as with their vegetable counterparts, involves the processes of freezing and sublimation. Ice is formed in the natural liquid portion of the vegetable or animal tissue, and is extracted in the form of a vapor (sublimation). The balance of the freezing rate and the rate of sublimation dictates the final quality of the product. Too fast a freezing rate may cause sublimation to be too slow, causing incomplete extraction, while too slow a freezing rate may damage the product cell structure.  When done properly, freeze-drying results in a piece that has particle identity and good flavor. "Freeze-dried, diced meats hydrate within three minutes in hot water," says Haar, "and taste just like beef, chicken or turkey."  Uniform, characterizing meat flavor, though, is often better delivered by powdered stocks and broths rather than by meat pieces, due to the fat content of the ingredients. Powdered chicken stock, with its inherent fat content, "is typical of the bird, with broiled, roasted or intense roasted flavors," says Hutchinson. "A typical instant chicken noodle soup formula, for instance, would contain rendered chicken fat for lots of flavor; powdered chicken for background notes and rounding; caramel for color; and salt, sugar, spices, MSG, dextrose, turmeric and noodles."Using your noodle  Most instant meal mixes rely on some sort of pasta, rice or legume to give texture and substantiality to the mixture. While many instant mixes for foodservice are used as accompaniments to fresh or frozen entrees, on the retail level, customers expect a meal in a bowl. This one-dish dining needs to fill the void that normally a sit-down lunch or dinner would fill, and pasta helps do just that.  Instant noodles are made from the same ingredients as regular cook-up noodles (semolina flour and water, and sometimes egg), but are steam-cooked after extrusion, then dried to 12% moisture. Steaming gelatinizes the starch, keeping it from leaching into the instant-meal mixture as it rehydrates. The result is a cooked pasta, says Mark Vermeylen, A. Zerega and Sons, Inc., Fairlawn, NJ, that reconstitutes in a soup or casserole cup in five to eight minutes. Instant pastas come in a variety of shapes, which can determine the time it takes the noodles to reconstitute. Smaller shapes, or those in a tubular form, take the least amount of time. Granular types of pasta, such as couscous, can take as little as four minutes to reconstitute.  Relatively new to the noodle market are quick-cooking, microwavable, thin-walled pastas, says Vermeylen. "This is technology that is not pre-cooked," he says, "but a dry pasta." Added ingredients such as egg white help strengthen the structure of the pasta, making it easily machineable. These pastas are designed to go into the microwave in a sauced dish, such as Kraft Foods' Easy Mac™ microwaveable dinner.   In these dishes, the heat from the microwave actually brings water up to a boil, cooking the pasta, whereas in the add-hot-water products, the noodles are designed to "cook" in cooling water. Microwavable noodle and macaroni dishes have been tried in the past, but with limited consumer acceptance because of the noodle consistency. "This new technology," says Vermeylen, "has people looking at microwavable pasta meals again."  However, says Vermeylen, microwaveable noodles probably have application only in complete meal products. "The time saving isn't really worth it to the consumer if they are making a fresh pasta sauce at home. The pasta consistency still isn't the same as cook-up noodles; you just don't get the al dente bite."Rice and beans  Instantized rices are gaining in popularity as consumers look for variety for their midday meal. Instant rice can reconstitute in three to five minutes after the addition of boiling water, as compared to 20 minutes for precooked parboiled rice, says Nelson Wurth, senior manager, national sales and marketing, AC HUMKO Rice Division, Cordova, TN. Rice is a versatile ingredient, with uses in many ethnic cuisines, he says. "Also, we are seeing more rice blends, with orzo or other pasta, wild rice and other grains."  Instant rices are made via processes similar to that of instant pastas. Converted rice is boiled to near doneness, drained, then dried to a specific moisture level. It is important to balance the rehydration rate with the other grains used in the formula, says Wurth, but this can be adjusted by using various rices.  However, too fast a rehydration time reduces the texture and bite characteristics of the rice. The rehydration rate of rice depends on the ending water content. Most soup-cup formulas use a rice with 6.5% moisture. Rice dried to a lower moisture content may be brittle, and will break and cause fines in the end product. "You need to balance the brittleness with the reconstitution requirements," says Wurth.  Precooked, dehydrated legumes in instant blends can go a long way to provide texture, flavor and nutrition. Use of beans and lentils is growing throughout the instant-soup market, says Janelle Sterner, chef and new product developer, Inland Empire Foods, Inc., Riverside, CA. "They are also great for foodservice products, where the customer does not have to worry about quality control. They just have to add water and stir, and the product will keep for more than two hours on a steam table. These are less-processed ingredients with full flavor," she says.  Legume flours can hold up to six times their weight in water, making them useful as thickening agents. Flaked legumes reconstitute almost immediately into a thick, smooth product similar to refried beans, while whole, quick-cook beans may require a five- to 10-minute steep. Legumes have application in cold-water reconstituted products such as dips, as well. "One of our customers used pea flour as a thickener in guacamole," says Sterner, "and we see no slowdown in the use of garbanzos for hummus."   Inland Empire offers organic dried pinto beans, but Sterner sees no huge demand for other organic ingredients. "There is a growing interest in organic," she says, "but people aren't putting their feet into the water just yet." What is growing in the legume market, however, is the interest in new and unusual varieties. "Something that hasn't been seen before," says Sterner, "something with a story, a history." Authentic Latin varieties are especially popular. However, no matter what the look of beans, they generally fit into the same mild, beany flavor profile, making them easy to work with in product development.  The appeal of beans, along with the fact that they fit well into vegetarian dishes makes them an important ingredient. "Food product developers don't realize that by making a vegetarian product, they can appeal to both markets, vegetarian and meat-eating," says Sterner. "We want everyone to have a little bit of bean in their diet every day."Veggie appeal  Consumers like to see nice, bright vegetables in their soup or casserole, and, thanks to various processing techniques, this can almost always be accomplished. "Our biggest seller is our puffed carrot," says Fred Turkovich, market product manager, vegetables, Basic Vegetable Products, Walnut Creek, CA. Using a proprietary process, carrots are puffed and air dried, producing a carrot piece that has a "pillowed" appearance and a natural color. The puffed carrot pieces rehydrate in one to five minutes. The product tends to float on the top of a soup cup, for good visual appeal. "The greater the vegetable's visibility, as opposed to pieces that have sunk to the bottom of the cup, the more it appeals to the consumer," says Turkovich.  Freeze-dried vegetables also retain good color, flavor and rehydration qualities, says Heather Christensen, research and development, Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL. Freeze-dried vegetables rehydrate in one to three minutes and retain the natural form of the vegetable. Peas look like peas, not all wrinkled as in an air-dried pea, she says.   Because freeze-dried vegetables are more fragile than air-dried products, says Christensen, they may cause problems for manufacturers who don't want to add the vegetables at the end of the blend process, or in a two-stage fill. But, she points out, the eating qualities of the freeze-dried product makes them a valuable asset to the instant-meal processor.  Freeze-drying is carried out by pulling a vacuum on a product as it is brought down to freezer temperature. Air-drying is simpler and produces a less expensive product, which may be a consideration for some manufacturers, says Turkovich. Particle size is an important factor in the rehydration rate of vegetables. "Thin slices of air-dried vegetables such as carrots and red bell pepper can deliver good color, without a lot of expense," he says.  Shelf life varies from vegetable to vegetable, with the largest pieces having the longest shelf life. "It depends on the surface area exposed to oxygen," says Turkovich. "Because they are more porous, freeze-dried vegetables lose their color and sensory attributes quicker." Granular air-dried vegetables also lose flavor and color faster than air-dried vegetables in a 3/8-inch cube, for example.  Some pigments lose their color and flavor more rapidly than other as well, says Turkovich. Red vegetables that depend on carotenoids for color, such as red bell peppers and tomatoes, lose their color faster than chlorophyll-dependent vegetables, such as green peppers. This is due to oxygen reacting differently with the carotenoids in the vegetable.   Despite the fact that dried and freeze-dried vegetables may suffer from oxidation, there is a movement away from adding preservatives such as sulfites to these ingredients. There is a health connotation with the consumption of vegetables, says Turkovich, and sulfites, with their association with allergic reactions, do not fit well. Instead, ingredient makers are changing their process control, controlling moisture in the product more effectively and developing new vegetable-seed varieties with much higher solids. Packaging also plays a role in product quality. To inhibit color and flavor loss over time, Basic Vegetable Products has invested in modified atmosphere packaging for their dehydrated vegetables, for example.  One of the best of the dried vegetables to use in instant casserole or soup applications, says Turkovich, is dried broccoli. Although the florets take a beating in some packaging filling operations, Basic's broccoli retains both color and flavor characteristics, he says.  Infused vegetables give food product designers the flexibility to choose moisture content and hydration time, says Christensen. Vegetable pieces are infused with sugar or corn syrup and glycerin and can be tailored to fit specific needs. The end product can be crispy and natural or have a soft, cooked characteristic. For the specialty foods market, "we can even infuse vegetables with flavors or nutraceuticals," she says.  Turkovich points out that "infusion improves the color, flavor and texture of vegetables and increases their shelf life." Dehydrated infused vegetables typically have a shelf life of up to two years, he says.  Onions and garlic play important roles in the flavoring systems of instant meals. Basic Vegetable Products has developed an onion that has 20% to 25% solids at harvest, compared to 8%-solids onions commonly found in the market. The resulting dried onion flake or powder "has an impact like a fresh onion," says Turkovich. Onion and garlic products can vary widely between suppliers. A good rule of thumb is to test for pungency levels from supplier to supplier and batch to batch. Some imported onion products may have a much different flavor profile than domestic products.Flavor up  Natural and artificial flavors have important roles in instant systems. Since products do not have any time to simmer, flavors can add the "pop-out" factor to a product. "Flavors can add just the right top note to bring balance to a system," says Crosby. Flavors can also help the economics of a product. "A ramen-like noodle dish which retails at a very low price point relies on natural and artificial flavors to help bring down the cost."  Rieman cautions the product developer to be aware of "taste-bud burnout" when developing products. "A food has to have an addictive quality," he says, "so that you want to keep eating it. You have to flavor it just enough, but not so much the consumer will tire of it before they finish the serving."  Flavors and other ingredients can be encapsulated to inhibit their reaction to other ingredients in the mix, or to regulate their rehydration rate. More common drying techniques are spray drying, which atomizes a liquid into a hot air dryer, and drum drying, which dries a slurry as it passes between rolling heated drums. Granulation is adjusted by milling the resulting product into the desired particle size. The particle size of the mix can effect the viscosity of the end product, which can affect the flavor impact.   "In general, the more starch that is in a product, the more it dampens the flavor," says Crosby. Products with high noodle content, or starch-thickened soups, require more flavor. "Flavors actually get 'stuck' in the starch system and can't get out to hit your taste buds."  "Flavors get trapped in the interstices of the starch," agrees Lawrence Buckholz, Ph.D., vice president, flavor technologies, J. Manheimer, Teterboro, NJ. "Protein complexing also traps flavors." Added natural and artificial flavors can help compensate for the loss. Savory flavors can sometimes be masked by starches, especially in applications such as gravies, he says. This can be compensated for, sometimes, with salt. Salt can lift up flavors and bring them through. In low-salt formulas, pregelatinized starches can help the flavor come through, and some salt replacers might have the same flavor effect. Adding oil can also help make flavors more distinct. The oil sticks to the tongue and the flavors stay in the mouth longer, says Crosby.  Flavor applications in instant sweet goods may require a different approach than in an instant savory dish. An instant pudding, for instance, may actually be "overdosed" with added flavors to compensate for flavor loss over time. "In three days, the flavor of a pudding may be significantly diminished," says Buckholz. Instant puddings and desserts that are made to eat right away usually do not experience the flavor loss associated with storage. Products that are served cold generally deliver less flavor than products served hot.  In the end, the use of flavors, salt and flavor enhancers in an instant mix "is not straightforward," says Buckholz. "Everything is product-specific; sometimes you have to try different flavors and see how they behave."  The shelf life of dry-mix products is generally targeted for about six months. "In six months time, you have gone through two seasons," says Immel. "You, as a manufacturer, don't want to be responsible for products that may be warehoused over a year's worth of seasons, from extreme hot to extreme cold." Nonetheless, in controlled conditions, most dry-mix formulas deteriorate little over 12 months.It's all in the mix  An important part of any dry-mix operation is the actual blending technique that combines all the ingredients into a homogenous product. Ribbon blenders, auger-driven blenders and paddle mixers each make a different type of mixture, even when using the same ingredients. Ingredients of similar bulk densities blend better than those that are widely dissimilar.   "The way ingredients are blended together impacts the end result," says Immel. "You can control the rate of rehydration in the blend by altering the water or oil phase. You can adjust the ending grittiness or smoothness of the product by the order in which you add them to the blender, and you can even influence machinability and packaging. By continually optimizing blending and process choices, you can change ingredient performance." Also, adding oil to a blend can help reduce dusting and can help carry flavors, such as spices, observes Crosby.   Instant meals, ready-to-mix sauces and side dishes, stir-and-serve dips and just-add-water desserts all address the increasing need for no-brainer food solutions. Foodservice customers are demanding that products be as elementary as possible. Retail customers are looking for fast and easy products that even a child could prepare. Even manufacturers are requiring effortless preparation of meal components as labor costs increase; language barriers can make the manufacturing of elaborate formulas difficult in a plant situation.   The name of the game is to simplify - instant mixes provide ample opportunities for food product manufacturers to give users what they need. The improving quality and variety of dehydrated ingredients is giving product developers the tools they require to produce mixes that are tasty, convenient and ready in an instant.Back to top

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 47,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like