Department News

Cornell helps Welch's perfect its purple juice

By Amanda Garris

When Welch's noticed a "green" aroma in their signature purple grape juice and puzzling color changes during processing, they turned to experts in Cornell's Department of Food Science for answers. It's just one of many examples of public-private partnerships in food science that are solving problems and preparing students for careers in an industry ravenous for technical expertise.Graduate student Meera Iyer's research with food science faculty Olga Padilla-Zakour and Gavin Sacks took her into Concord vineyards throughout the harvest to collect samples to identify a "green" aroma in purple grape juice.

Welch's first approached Olga Padilla-Zakour, the department's associate chair, in 2008 to better understand the science behind a new processing method that preserved juice color better than their traditional method.

"We knew that a new method -- one that employed concentration earlier in processing than our traditional method -- resulted in better juice color, but we didn't understand why," said John Pacheco, Welch's director of grape technology and the company's newly formed Grape Center of Excellence.

Padilla-Zakour and Gavin Sacks, assistant professor of food science, discovered that the color compounds -- anthocyanins -- precipitated out during processing in the traditional method, resulting in juice without the vivid purple color. In the new method, they stayed.

With solid scientific grounding for the new processing method, Welch's made new investments in their Westfield, N.Y., facility, resulting in an estimated $239,000 in savings during the first year, according to Pacheco.

In 2009, a new problem arose: The "green" aroma -- reminiscent of grass or bell pepper -- in their purple grape juice was sparking consumer complaints. This time, flavor and aroma specialist Sacks took the lead.

"Although the aroma dissipates with time, we initially see higher levels of consumer complaints," said Pacheco. "We needed to identify the root cause and ways to control it, either in the vineyard or in processing, to reduce consumer dissatisfaction."

Sacks was able to identify the likely culprits -- two compounds that were elevated in the green-smelling juice -- and Welch's is following up with studies this year to see how its production is affected by such variables as weather and vineyard practices.

"We see working with Cornell as complementary to the work we are doing in process development, allowing us to understand the juice chemistry at a mechanistic level," said Pacheco.

The public-private partnership benefits the Department of Food Science as well, with financial support and real world experience for its graduate students.

"It's very fulfilling when a project comes together where graduate students can apply science to real situations and have a positive impact on industry," said Padilla-Zakour. "And with our land grant mission, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing our work make a difference with our stakeholders."

Welch's is one of many companies partnering with food science. The PepsiCo Foundation and Kraft Foods have for years been major sponsors of the Food Science Summer Scholar program, which brings elite undergrads to Cornell for 10 weeks of research and career mentoring.

"Funds from private companies have allowed us to develop the program," said coordinator Janette Robbins. "In return, the companies are ensuring a pool of future employees to recruit. Many summer scholars are later hired as interns or employees at the sponsoring companies."

According to Joe Vinciquerra, director of business partnerships and foundation relations at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the $108 million renovation of the home of food science, Stocking Hall, offers companies and other private entities another outlet for philanthropy: naming of spaces within the building.

The first significant contribution came from TIC Gums, a Maryland-based producer of ingredients for food texture and stabilization. Their gift, in honor of Timothy Andon '06, business development specialist at TIC Gums, will establish the "TIC Gums" classroom in the new Stocking Hall.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.