“Dinosaurs did not believe in research.” The slogan on the poster at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Mich.) intrigued at least one scientist. The phrase helped to initiate his love for research, as it infers dinosaurs are now extinct because they did not explore new venues.
Nirmal Sinha, vice president of R&D, Graceland Fruit Inc. (Frankfort, Mich.), and others at the company believe the importance of research and development is becoming more apparent as consumer demand for value-added products increases. The marketplace is not a forum for consumers to buy existing products anymore, but a place to demand products that do not yet exist. Continuous research and development provides a means to stay competitive and companies without adequate R&D departments will be extinct before you can say, “pterodactyl.”
“Innovation spurred by R&D has become the living root system of Graceland Fruit,” says president and CEO Don Nugent. “Nirmal has driven our commitment to innovation and new product development over the years, and our product lines have grown significantly under his direction.”
Fresh Out of the LabGraceland traditionally produces infused dried and Soft-N-Frozen™ fruits. However, through Sinha's diligent research and development process, Graceland recently unveiled two new ingredient lines—infused dried vegetables and Fridg-N-Fresh™, a shelf-stable vegetable line that lasts up to 90 days in refrigeration.
These new ingredients are the result of years of innovative thinking and experimentation. Upon joining the company, Sinha began infusing carrots, thinking he could use the existing infusion process for cherries. He found they were difficult to dry to a water activity level that would make them shelf stable without the use of chemical preservatives. He was prompted to develop a patented process for the carrots and moved on to develop infusion-drying processes for various fruits.
The lines include vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, celery, sweet corn, peas, green and red peppers and potatoes. Fridg-N-Fresh was created in response to consumer demand for healthier, balanced refrigerated meal replacements.
These new ingredients offer convenience to the end consumer through numerous applications such as entrées (beef stews, pot roasts, pepper steak, shish kebobs and casseroles) or vegetarian dishes in the refrigerated meal replacement market. The vegetable ingredients also can serve as an accompaniment to prepared meat entrées, pizzas and soups.
The infused dried vegetable line retains the qualities of fresh vegetables including flavor, color and texture, say company officials. The vegetables are soft enough to put in trail mixes, yet can be boiled, microwaved or baked as part of packaged convenience meals.
The fresh qualities and longer life of infused ingredients respond to demands for more variety in products such as bagels, soups, breads, pastas, boxed dinner kits and more. According to Sinha, “Extended shelflife vegetables have excellent potential for use in ready-to-serve meals and in foodservice markets.”
He believes the biggest challenge the food industry faces is the maintenance of uniform product quality and productivity. How does Graceland deal with that? “We like to be proactive. One of our R&D roles is to support our product lines. We monitor and dialog with customers continuously to see how we can better serve them,” Sinha says.
Close relationships with food manufacturers drive Graceland's R&D staff to create exciting new ingredients. They know that factors such as water activity, moisture content, color, sweetness, glycerin level, flowability and piece size are important in the development process, and tweak those per customer specification.
The people at Graceland may be giants in the fruit and vegetable ingredient industry, but they are no dinosaurs when it comes to innovative technology and progress.