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Researchers Find Frugal, Flavorful Abalone Substitute

By Jill Lee
November 12, 1997

Blue abalones (Haliotis fulgens) sell for about $50 a can on the West Coast, thanks to their savory reputation and tender, firm texture. But budget-conscious consumers may someday enjoy a more affordable abalone, the result of a cooperative project between USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Georgia.

Black abalones (Haliotis Cracherodii), sold mainly in Mexico for about $10 a can, are considered lower in quality than their blue cousins because of their tougher texture. Black abalone has essentially the same flavor and nutrition as its higher-priced blue counterpart; all that’s missing is the tenderness.

University of Georgia food scientist Yao-wen Huang analyzed the black abalones’ chemical composition for clues that led to a new tenderizing technique. The technique uses papain, an FDA-approved papaya enzyme that solves the tenderness problem by breaking down collagen in the abalone tissue. The only question: How much papain is just enough to tenderize the black abalone without compromising flavor?

Enter Brenda Lyon, a food scientist with ARS. Lyon advised Gabriela Sanchez, one of Huang’s graduate students, on the best methods to pinpoint the ideal amount of enzyme. Lyon and Sanchez used an instrument called a texture analyzer to measure the amount of force needed to down a food sample. The instrument compares the effort needed to mechanically “chew” the modified black abalone versus the blue standard.

But Lyon and Sanchez didn’t rely solely on mechanical “taste.” They also recruited eight taste-testers from the Athens, Ga., area. The panelists’ job requirements included the ability to detect subtle nuances in flavor and texture and a willingness to spend 12 weeks on the project--not a bad assignment when the high-quality blue abalone was on the table.

Scientific contact: Brenda Lyon, USDA, ARS, Russell Research Center, Athens, Ga., phone (706) 546-3167, fax 546-3607, bglyon@athens.net; Yao-wen Huang, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia, phone (706) 542-1092, fax 542-1050, yhuang@uga.cc.uga.edu