Utah State University Food Science Club members Annalisa Jones, Melissa Marsh and Weston Christensen won first place and $5,000 in the 2021 Ocean Spray Student Product Development Competition.
Graduate and undergraduate food science students from across the United States and Canada created new sauces, condiments or dips using Ocean Spray cranberries. The goal of the event was to promote home cooking and help consumers incorporate cranberries into everyday foods, not just holiday meals.
The USU Food Science Club’s entries were two cranberry hot sauces: Xalapa and Fresno.
“The Xalapa hot sauce is very close to a chile verde flavor,” said Jones, a master’s student. “The major flavors are lime, cilantro and jalapeno, while the yellow cranberries add a little sweetness and contribute to the tartness of the limes. The Fresno sauce has more of a chipotle flavor. The smokiness with the heat is really good! Like the Xalapa, you get a little extra sweetness with the cranberries.”
Jones noted that the cranberries played a key role in making each of the sauces work.
“I loved that both of our products highlighted the cranberries in a way that you wouldn't expect,” said Jones. “The sweetness with the heat of the sauce made for the perfect balance.”
Before they landed on the winning entries, the team looked at foods from India, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. It took some experimentation to figure out what worked.
“We threw a lot of ideas out there,” said Marsh, a doctoral student. “We talked about doing cranberry salsa, cranberry barbecue sauce and cranberry cream cheese dip. Eventually, we settled on hot sauce because it can help to elevate home cooking, which is one of the competition's goals. The Xalapa and Fresno sauces tasted the best, and we liked the stark differences in color and flavor between the two."
Jones, Marsh and Weston had to write a report, film a product video and hold an oral presentation and product sampling as part of their entry. They knew they’d created quality sauces early on, but it remained unclear if they’d take the top spot.
“We thought we might have won, but there were some really creative ideas we were competing against.” Jones said. “It took about a week to get the results, during which I was checking my email all day. When they finally came in, we were all so excited. It’s so fulfilling to have all that hard work over the past seven months pay off.”
Heidi Wengreen, head of USU’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Sciences, is happy but not surprised by the team’s success.
“Club members are knowledgeable in principles of food science and super creative,” Wengreen said. “They also have a great faculty advisor, Professor Marie Walsh, who mentors club members and provides the resources necessary to make great ideas come to fruition.”
This year’s contest isn’t the first competition that USU food science students have won. In 2020, USU food science students took first place and $3,000 in the Institute of Food Technologists' Smart Snack for Kids competition, while 2019 saw a first-place win and $10,000 at a new products competition run by the Idaho Milk Processors Association. USU food science students are often finalists in both events.
Ocean Spray now has the rights to the team’s hot sauces, and the company hasn’t stated what its plans for them are yet. What is certain, however, are the team’s plans going forward. While Weston will be graduating next spring, Jones and Marsh intend on competing again.
“We hope to encourage other food science students to participate in similar competitions next year,” said Jones.
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