The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Albany, Calif., is in the business of turning potentially wasted fruits and vegetables into good-tasting, healthful products. As director of the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, which focuses on solving food-manufacturing problems by using cutting-edge processing technologies, Tara McHugh said, "Adding value to specialty crops and plant-based waste materials by developing novel, healthy ingredients and functional foods is one of the main focuses of the unit's research.” The first objective is to increase the commercial value of plant-based, postharvest waste materials, high in dietary fiber and/or polyphenols, by reprocessing them into healthful foods and food ingredients. The fruits of the team's labors can be found on grocery shelves throughout the country – one of which is edible wrappers.
Edible Wrappers. To get more people to eat fruits and vegetables, McHugh and her team invented a way to cast fruit and vegetable purees into edible films that can be used as wrappings and coatings for other foods. The films are excellent barriers to oxygen and moderate barriers to moisture. They also exhibit superior color, flavor, and aroma and have excellent flexible properties and good nutritional value. Furthermore, through the addition of natural antimicrobials, the films can improve food safety.
Working with Origami Foods, which later became NewGem Foods, McHugh co-led the commercialization of fruit and vegetable-based edible films. The patented films are exclusively licensed and sold by NewGem Foods, located in Fife, Wash. The company has more than $8.5 million in product sales to date, which equates to more than 15 million servings of fruits and vegetables, McHugh said, adding, the new technology has created 56 new jobs in a rural area of high unemployment.
The main uses for the edible films are as alternatives to nori on sushi, gluten-free bread and tortilla alternatives, and glaze sheets for hams. These products are sold in retail grocery chains in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, and are also used in foodservice operations.
McHugh used the same technology in collaboration with East-West Medical Research Institute to develop the first edible fruit straw. In addition, they found that incorporating natural essential oils from oregano, thyme, cinnamon, allspice, clove and lemongrass into apple- and tomato-based films and coatings helped to fight against E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella enterica, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Other innovations include:
- In the early 2000s, McHugh developed the world's first all-fruit bar using a novel processing technology she and her team invented. Each bar is packed with 100% fruit and has no preservatives, fillers, or other artificial ingredients. The bars are made of unmarketable fruit that would normally be discarded. The technology allowed fruit growers to add value to their crop and create new markets, while helping people meet their daily fruit requirements. Each bar provides two servings of fruit.
- McHugh's team also developed an infrared blanching and dehydration technology, which recently received a patent. The company Treasure8 saw this as a golden opportunity and licensed a suite of ARS patents on the technology for fruit and vegetable snacks. Treasure8 has an exclusive license for the patented process to make 100% fruit and vegetable snacks, using the infrared blanching and dehydration technology. Part of the company's success is due to McHugh and her team, according to Timothy Childs, Treasure8 cofounder and CEO. "The successful public-private partnership Treasure8 has formed with the USDA is a testament to Dr. McHugh's ability to help bring clarity and vision to complex, revolutionary applications, such as those that we at Treasure8 are now commercializing," he said.
ARS scientists continue to develop novel technologies to address manufacturing needs for nutritious, value-added, shelf-stable products. "We are constantly working on new ways to improve healthfulness in processed foods through science and partnerships with different companies, universities, growers, commodity organizations, government, and other stakeholders," McHugh said. The research supports small businesses and U.S. growers, and reduces waste and increases consumption of healthy foods.
For more information, visit USDA-ARS.