The use of new food product development as a capstone project for most (if not all) tertiary qualifications in Food Science and/or Technology is well over 25 years old in South Africa. From very small beginnings it has blossomed into a significant part of the training programme. It is one of the key elements in bringing the food industry into our assessment programme where students are grilled (pardon the pun) by experts on different aspects of the products developed.

For the uninitiated, students are given a theme against which product development takes place over a period of 4 months. They usually have six months to plan around this as a group after which, in their 3rd and also 4th year of study they have to execute. This execution ends up in a packaged product with appropriate labelling. Some examples are given below in which the theme was “inclusion of kelp”. Other themes related to meat analogues, soya-based products, children’s treats, etc.

However, this commentator had developed a jaded palate (pun-ish me for this J) over the years. It pointed to a need, in my mind for renewal and revitalization. However, let me be clear that the comments below are not necessarily original and possibly have been acted upon in one way or another. To give some credibility to the latter statement, I have taken advice from my colleagues in Food Science & Technology in this regard.

In my opinion (moderated by my colleagues), the NPD concept needed a hupstoot (for the language-challenged – a boost)! Either that or it must guarded against that NPD in the academic context does not become a simple “recipe and cooking instructions” process. I have been informed by my learned colleagues that the latter is not the case. However, two suggestions are mooted/ proposed for the possible improvement or re-invigoration of the concept.

Concept 1: When developing a product at kitchen scale, and if it is acceptable to the marketing people and other signatories, it would then have to be up-scaled while being compliant with all the necessary company policies and legislation. It does not make sense to develop a product for the mass market just to find out that it is not scalable due to one or other reason. As an example, if there was a big enough market, would you be able to satisfy consumer demand for pofferetjies at scale?

It is suggested that, as part of the NPD process, a professional food process engineer (or similar omnivore) be hired or enticed to donate time pro bono to assist. This person could, as part of the NDP process, provide advice on the feasibility of scaling up from the point of view of the manufacturing process. One could also extend this to an expert in procurement of raw materials – will you have enough raw material to supply an up-scaled process? Are there enough tomatoes produced in South Africa to make tomato paste? Click here if you want to know the answer!

This brings a whole new ball game and value to the development process! Imagine cross-fielding this with the Faculty of Engineering!!

Concept 2: A recent mail from a supporter of education in Food Science & Technology, Mr. Nick Starke (ex-Nampak R&D), contained a link to a website, the contents of which made an old itch revive itself and thus presenting a need to scratch. The website deals with the fact that under-privileged universities in Africa are starting to create/ build equipment for themselves due to costs and/ or availability. Read this article here!

Again, this had been a pet project of mine (in my head mostly but sometimes tumbling out of my mouth). Why not build small-scale equipment from scratch, either as a tool for demonstration or for actual use in processing? Why not make this a collaborative project with other departments in the Faculty of Engineering? An example of this is to build a small (nano-?) pasteurizer (tube or plate) to handle sample sizes of, let’s say, 20 ml?  Include sensors, pumps and a testing regime in terms of microbiology? What about any other high-value small volume liquid needing such (or similar) treatments? What about micro-fluidics and flow chemistry as a tool in this regard?

A few years ago we assisted a Department in putting together a brief to build a small-scale spray dryer. A working prototype was produced to spray dry milk using relatively inexpensive and readily available materials and parts. The potential is there!

And sure, there are commercial products at small scale. But you could, within reason, challenge students with such a theme/ request taking this beyond the textbooks and Powerpoint presentations in class. And yes, I may be over-simplifying the feasibility of doing this, but let’s see what can come of this! I have seen something similar to this at Innoventon, an institute at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth but at a scale a little bigger that what I envisage (more engineering than food though).

Concluding Remark: So, what do you as an alumnus of this institution think about these possibilities? What other re-invigoration would you suggest? Is it at all necessary?

Larry Dolley