Megan Schwannecke knew her cookies passed the ultimate taste test when a focus group of kids asked for more.
“That’s when we knew we were on our way,” says the food science graduate student at Michigan State University
(MSU). “We realized it wasn’t just us who thought our cookies were good. Others liked them, too.”
Schwannecke is talking about no ordinary batch of cookies. She’s talking about a carefully formulated, put-to-the test cookie dough that recently took first place in a national competition for food science students.
What’s more, the student-developed dough is completely free of gluten, eggs, dairy or nuts—earning it additional status as an allergen-free comfort food.
“We all felt that cookies should taste good,” says Schwannecke, a team leader for the group of MSU students behind the dough. “There’s that industry feeling that allergen-free must taste horrible. So for us, the big part of the end product was the taste.”Easy Bake
Dubbed “Ready-to-Dough,” the award-winning, chocolate chip cookie dough is a testament to the quality of student-developed products coming out of the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Just last spring, Schwannecke and seven other students emerged victorious against teams from 25 universities at the 2008 Institute of Food Technologist Food Product Development Competition. Associate Professor Janice Harte advised the eight-member group.
She wasn’t surprised at their triumph, given the creativity and drive she sees in her capstone class for food science majors.
“This is major,” says Harte of the competition that attracts the attention of the food industry. “Something like this brings up our respect in the food industry for our university, as well as for Michigan.”
The university has actually won the competition back-to-back, further elevating the department’s stature. In the last three to four years, the number of students in food science programs has doubled, bringing MSU enrollment to 105.
Industry interest, too, has remained steady. High-profile companies like Kellogg regularly visit the classroom and talk to food science clubs and ultimately, offer internships and jobs.
“It’s very rewarding to see our students and programs acknowledged,” says Harte. “By bringing more students and more company representatives to campus, you have more people exposed to the Lansing and East Lansing area, and everything it has to offer.”Making Dough
Aileen Tanojo can attest to that experience. She’s from Indonesia, and has made East Lansing her home for six years. She's also graduating soon with a master’s in food science.
Along with Schwannecke, Tanojo was co-leader for “Team Cookie Dough.”
“We tried different ratios of ingredients,” says Tanojo of the science behind a comfort food. “We did multiple trials to make a dough that would taste good, but wouldn’t be high in cost.”
As part of their product research, Tanojo and other team members attended a fair in Farmington, Mich. The fair focused on food allergies, in particular on products and services for the people who can’t tolerate gluten—the primary component in wheat flour.
Armed with clipboards and questions, the team surveyed members of the fair sponsor—the Celiac Sprue Association
. They took that knowledge, returned to the classroom, and got back to work.
“We learned that allergy-free food, particularly those that are gluten-free, can be very expensive,” says Tanojo. “People will pay for it because they have too. That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.”
After several months and several trials, the cookies morphed from a dry mix to a refrigerated dough, from peanut butter to chocolate chips, from wheat flour to a nutritionally-sound grain from South America.
In the end, it wasn’t just gluten-free—it was free of all the eight major allergens listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
“And that’s what took it to the level of innovation needed for this competition,” says Harte. “They weren’t just trying to make another dry mix. They were trying to mainstream it, to place it next to other refrigerated doughs in the grocery. That was the idea behind it.”
Making it Simple
Each year, millions of Americans have allergic reactions to food. While there is no cure for food allergies, strict avoidance of food allergens can help prevent mild to serious health consequences.
“While none of us had food allergies, we saw there was really a need for this type of product,” says Schwannecke. “We felt it was something that could really help a particular group of consumers.”
While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions, just eight are considered to cause 90 percent of food allergic reactions. According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act
of 2004, those eight foods include milk, eggs, fish (such as bass, flounder and cod), crustacean shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts and pecans), peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
And as the FDA observes, about 1.5 percent of adults and six percent of children under three years old in the United States—about four million people—have food allergies.
“We realized that there were a lot of people out there who could benefit,” says Schwannecke. “We also thought that families would enjoy the convenience of having to make just one batch of cookies the whole family could enjoy.”
Making the Market
Ready-to-Dough is not on the market yet. But team members are so confident of its appeal that they have applied for a patent.
“We’re definitely in the right place at the right time,” says Harte, as she points out the enthusiastic response of the judges at the competition, as well as the university community. “Allergen-free food is definitely a hot topic, and something larger food companies are looking for.”
The patent process, Harte says, might take two to three years, but is worth the wait. If approved, Ready-to-Dough will join a number of food products and ingredients currently in the university’s patent portfolio.
Mike Poterala, executive director of MSU Technologies
, says the university has inventions related to salt substitutes, sweeteners, instant bean flour and bean snacks. Other innovations are related to sorting and separating raw ingredients and the detection of contaminants.
“One unusual aspect of this invention is that many of the inventors are undergraduate students,” says Poterala. “The food product design team has been very active and successful under Professor Harte. We commend their efforts.”Members of the Ready-to-Dough team consisted of eight students from the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, including Aileen Tanojo, Megan Schwannecke, Eric Birmingham, Ashley Walters, Nicole Goldman, Raghav Sundar, Shantanu Kelkar, and Charles Poutney. The team was advised by Janice Harte of the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Larry Zink of the Department of Agricultural Economics.
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Ann Kammerer lives in East Lansing. She has written extensively about area businesses, non-profits and people making news for a variety of local and regional magazines.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Megan Schwannecke & Aileen Tanojo test cookies in the lab
Megan & Aileen in the MSU kitchen
Some of the other Food Science products
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie