"Impacting the World Three Times a Day" and "Food from Thought"

By Mary Garbacz

Phrases show relevance of UNL food science, food processing research

Rolando Flores dreams big. As department head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology, he dreams that the work of the department's faculty will make every person a healthier individual. As director of the UNL Food Processing Center, his dream is to make Lincoln the food capital of the world.

Under Flores' leadership, top UNL scientists are conducting the kinds of complex research that beg to be explained, but the impact of their work means better food safety, healthier individuals and food businesses that are more successful. It also means undergraduate and graduate programs for students not only in food science and technology for humans, but for companion animals as well.

"Impacting the World Three Times a Day" is the motto of the Department of Food Science and Technology; "Food from Thought" is associated with The Food Processing Center. Both are located in The Food Processing Complex on the UNL east campus, where locals know you go to buy student-made cheese and ice cream.

Food Science and Technology - Focusing on a Healthier You

"In terms of research, we have been moving from a very traditional food science and technology department to more of an avant garde department," Flores said, focusing on how an individual person is affected when certain foods are consumed.

"We have moved traditionally from the 'farm to table' to 'farm to gut,'" Flores said. "'Gut' is intestinal biology and is one of the most exciting things happening right now." Flores explained that the intestinal tract contains more microorganisms than cells in the body and it has been learned that many diseases, as well as nutrient absorption, take place in the intestinal tract. "We are focusing on food for the individual - how one type of nutrient is absorbed by the individual," he said.

Recent studies associate diabetes, as well as other diseases and conditions, with what a person eats and how that individual's system processes the nutrients. Flores has hired faculty members who specialize in targeted areas, including a specialist in probiotics and prebiotics, who is researching what microorganisms work in a beneficial way for an individual; a specialist in intestinal microbiology, who is researching the microorganisms in the gut, but also providing that information to the food industry; a specialist in mucosal immunology, who performs research on the effects of microorganisms in a germ-free lab setting; and a grains specialist, who focuses on starches and carbohydrates. These are fundamental areas of work that focus on the individual, Flores said, and also connect the food science and technology with other NU departments, colleges and campuses. Flores has a Ph.D. in grain science from Kansas State University and worked as a research agricultural engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before coming to UNL in 2006.

Food safety is not only an area of microbiology research in the food science and technology department, it's also an area of outreach, or extension. "We have a faculty member who works with food companies and assists them, along with faculty members in animal science, in setting up programs to keep their facilities clean for processing food and preventing what could be a terrible contamination," Flores said. A Food Safety and Security Pilot Plant in the department is where testing is done to determine whether the processes in place in production facilities are effective in killing pathogens that could cause illness, Flores said.

Nutraceuticals, Flores said, is another departmental specialization. Nutraceuticals are elements of foods that have been proven to be useful in preventing or treating disease. Examples of nutraceuticals are Omega 3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, and antioxidants in dry beans, both of which have been researched extensively at UNL. "It's creating a very fertile area...identifying nutraceuticals that could be added to foods to create functional foods," he said.

The department's food allergy program works closely with industry and governmental organizations in developing methods to test for the presence of allergens such as nuts and seafood. "We have a very unique program here in the department that identifies (food) allergens," Flores said. It is a unique lab, he added, that is known worldwide.

Rolando Flores
Dr. Rolando Flores

Food Processing Center - Adding Value to Ag Products, Supporting Entrepreneurs

When Nebraska's state senators voted to establish the UNL Food Processing Center in the early 1980s, the goal was to create value for Nebraska's agricultural products, Flores said. For example, corn processed into cornflakes sells for more money than the unprocessed corn. "That's the issue of value-added. By doing processing, you increase the value."

The basic mission of The Food Processing Center is economic development. "We provide support to individuals in terms of technology transfer, financial management, strategic planning, feasibility analysis and in writing proposals," he said. "Last year, we had a success rate of 100 percent...their proposals have been funded." The Food Processing Center offers four phases of training to entrepreneurs; laboratory testing to food-related businesses; and research and development services to companies.

"We pride ourselves in having state-of-the-art pilot plants," Flores said, and new, sophisticated equipment such as extruders, a reverse-osmosis ultrafiltration system, a vibratory fluidized bed dryer and a high-pressure processing unit. The high-pressure processing unit, for example, allows pasteurization with pressure instead of heat. That technology is used in packaged guacamole, for instance, which is displayed at room temperature, is safe and retains the product's flavor and color.

The Food Processing Center trains and supports entrepreneurs who are starting or improving food-related businesses and tests the items the businesses produce. The center manages and charges rent for customers who wish to use the center's facilities, Flores said, and those funds help maintain and support that sophisticated equipment.

The dairy plant, in which university students manufacture cheese and ice cream, also rents space to entrepreneurs. "There are several cases of cheese makers in Nebraska that learned their trade here," Flores said. "They first started working in some of the pilot plants, then took their products to the farmer's market a couple of weeks later. This is a very direct connection in value-added and promoting economic development."

The Food Processing Center offers training to entrepreneurs in Nebraska, but also to global entities through videoconferencing, featuring simultaneous language translation. Participants pay a fee for the training, he said.
The training, Flores said, consists of four levels of workshops that draw participants nationwide. In the first level, entrepreneurs determine whether they are committed to putting a product on the market. In the second level, the entrepreneur works with the center's consultants to fine-tune the product. The third level is a national conference hosted in Lincoln and Omaha, presenting specific issues such as brokerage and transportation of products. The fourth level, he said, will provide training for established entrepreneurs who want to expand their businesses into an international market, as an example.