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Frozen Food Quality

Clarence Birdseye started the frozen food industry in 1925, when he quick-froze fish on a refrigerated moving belt. The frozen foods industry grew slowly but steadily until after World War II, when the renewed availability of home freezers boosted production to more than one billion pounds. But there were consumer complaints over loss in flavor and changes in color and texture. The industry had production problems, too, and turned to the USDA for help. The USDA's Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, California, began the project by building a freezer plant to conduct experiments with every step in food freezing. These included selection of the right crop variety, handling produce between field and plant, blanching and freezing, packaging and storing, and transport of the products to market. They also invented processing equipment to improve frozen products. What scientists learned--and passed along to processors--helped beyond measure to ensure the survival and growth of America's frozen food industry. Time-Temperature-Tolerance (TTT) was the name given to 8-year research project carried out in the 1950's. For today's consumer, TTT resulted in an almost unbelievable variety of quality frozen foods.

Some 50 years ago, orange juice concentrates were relatively flavorless--so insipid, in fact, that consumers opted instead for full-strength canned orange juice, which had a taste all its own. Meanwhile, Florida oranges were a surplus crop, with tons and tons going to waste every year. The Florida Citrus Commission and USDA researchers at Winter Haven, Florida, partnered together to improve frozen concentrated orange juice.  They found that adding the fresh juice resulted in a vastly improved concentrate that could be easily frozen. USDA, as had been agreed in advance, took out a patent on the process and then licensed it nonexclusively to interested companies (USPN 2,453,109). So it was that the frozen concentrated orange juice industry was born--an industry today worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales.

First Blueberry Hybrid

Growing blueberries as a commercial crop had its origin in 1906 when aUSDA botanist at Beltsville, Maryland, produced the first artificially created blueberry hybrid. Wild blueberries either produce small fruit with great flavor or large fruit with poor flavor. The first artificially created blueberry hybrid, 'Pioneer', had both large fruit and great flavor. Besides breeding, the botanist established commercial production protocols. He discovered that blueberry plants required acid soils and non-conventional fertilizers. In 1937, the breeding program was expanded by developing cooperative efforts for evaluation with many state experiment stations. These cooperative agreements have helped in the development of cultivars adapted to differing environmental conditions. The most notable cultivar that was develop is 'Bluecrop,' which was released in 1952 and is still the leading blueberry cultivar in the world. Today, about 75% of the commercial blueberry acreage is planted in USDA cultivars.

First Small Turkey

A milestone in turkey breeding was achieved in 1941 with the release of a new breed, the Beltsville Small White. It was the culmination of seven years of research at the USDA farm at Beltsville, Maryland--a project that made use of six breeds of turkey, including the native American wild turkey. Express aim of the project was to breed a small, meaty, full-breasted bird to meet the needs of the modern American family, which also was getting smaller. Before the Beltsville White, the average weight of an adult tom turkey was 33 pounds, with toms in some breeds reaching 40 pounds. Average weight of young hens was 14 pounds, with hens of one breed topping 25 pounds at nine months. A roast turkey of such formidable size meant endless rounds of leftovers, and some breeds were too big to fit in an apartment-size oven. A Beltsville White tom averaged only 15 pounds and young hens, 9 pounds. By the early 1960's, the Beltsville turkey accounted for more than 20 percent of domestic turkey production in the U.S., and the breed had spread worldwide. It helped make the turkey a year-round staple. The Beltsville turkey not only expanded the turkey market, it became the genetic foundation of practically every turkey sold today.

Instant Mashed Potatoes

At a 1954 press conference, ARS scientists at the USDA's Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, announced the development of the instant mashed potatoflake.  The press was shown how the potatoes were precooked, cooled, cooked again under carefully controlled conditions, mashed, and spread onto a heated drum. Starch granules were undamaged in the process, an important key to product quality. The dried potatoes came off the drum in a thin sheet and were broken into flakes.

Subsequent market tests of the flake form of instant mashed potatoes indicated that consumers would buy and use the new product, and the first commercial production began in just three years. And three years after that, in 1960, six processors converted more than four million bushels of fall potatoes into flakes. Explosion-puffed potatoes followed in 1960's. In the USDA-patented process (USPN 3,408,209) a partially dried piece of fruit or vegetable is subjected briefly to high temperature and pressure, then released into the atmosphere, where it expands instantly, or explodes. The result is a lightweight, porous piece of fruit or vegetable that can undergo further drying more quickly than an unexploded one. Researchers found that apples, celery, carrots, and potatoes so processed reconstitute in water quickly, fully, and evenly. Partly as a result of all these convenience foods, only one potato in three today is peeled at home.

Sourdough Bread

ARS scientists at the USDA's Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, California, found an unidentified bacterium in starter doughs from local San Francisoco bakeries. It worked cooperatively with a yeast to produce the bread's unusual crust, texture and slightly sour taste. Subsequently, researchers on the other side of the continent, at the USDA's Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, worked with industry to develop a simple new procedure for making the bread. It used sour whey and vinegar instead of bacteria as sources of acetic and lactic acid. When the acids are added to a French bread formula in the quantities and proportions found in the traditional product, the result is a bread with the resilient body, robust flavor, coarse structure, and crisp chewy crust of the native San Francisco product. As a result, supermarkets everywhere today feature, not only sourdough breads, but also rolls and English muffins.

Lactose-free Milk

Millions of people worldwide suffer from lactose intolerance caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase in their digestive tracts.  As a result, they are unable to digest large amounts of lactose (milk sugar) present in cows' milk without suffering from abdominal discomfort. In the 1980's, ARS researchers used lactase from nonhuman sources to break down about 70 percent of milk sugar into simple sugars--glucose and galactose. Trials showed most lactose-intolerant people could drink this modified milk and digest it without problems.  Scientists also used the treated milk to make other milk products, including ice cream and yogurt. A private firm, Lactaid, Inc., became the first company to commercialize the research. 


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