Understanding quirks, objectives and language are challenging for food industry engineers and consumers alike. While eating is necessary for nutritious living, it also has to be a pleasurable experience. Food products are aimed to please the consumer in several ways. Engineers are consistently taught about ideal processes based on purity and degree of polymerization, but flavor, despite its importance, gets overlooked.
Consumers buy food repeatedly if it satisfies their own personal tastes.
Consumers consider several quality attributes including nutritional value, taste or flavor, aroma, color, texture and appearance. In recent years, consumers prefer fewer additives, more natural qualities and minimal preservation. Especially in the United States, food safety is assumed to be present; it rarely exists as an afterthought and may only be present if a consumer falls ill. Appearance takes such a predominant role in the supermarket that each aisle is carefully crafted using light, air flow, temperature and even sound to make the food more appetizing for the buyer. For example, lighting has a red hue in the meats aisle and a blue hue in the dairy aisle. Air is colder in the refrigerated and frozen sections. This makes consumers feel as though their food is being stored at proper temperatures. Shoppers would not be inclined to purchase warm meat or saucy ice cream. Soothing music can improve a shopping experience.
Consumers expect their favorite foods to be accessible year round in most parts of the country. The main driver of food processing is the fact that people want to eat strawberries in the winter. Natural food spoils quickly necessitating processing to extend the edible life. At the same time, safety must be maintained by ensuring the food is free of microorganisms that could make people sick. The processing affects the quality, appearance and essentially defines the final product. Processing actually changes the ingredients resulting in a certain flavor, texture, color and aroma. Even if one starts with the same ingredients, completely different products are possible after processing. This results in a very delicate balancing act of processing to satisfy the requirements of taste, safety and quality one hundred percent of the time.
Product developers usually have a good idea of chemistry. Some have a culinary degree and create tasty products on a small scale, such as pots and pans, without thinking how to translate procedures to an industrial scale. Scaling-up, or bringing a process from bench to industrial, becomes the key element of design and challenge for process engineers. Fortunately, process synthesis and operational analysis provide tools to simplify the scale-up. This is accomplished by visualizing the processes as a series of transformations that inputs undergo in order to become outputs.
Modifications are framed within requirements which include attributes and boundaries such as food safety and energy consumption. While some attributes of the food such as color or viscosity are relatively easy to measure, some are hard to quantify and can be subjective on their value. Taste, texture, aroma and appearance are all subjective. The variation in consumer preferences requires that food processing be constructed by a multi-disciplinary group in which product developers, microbiologists, and engineers work together for the common good of the consumer.
Just remember…taste is King!