Danielle Heaney, a graduate student in the lab of Olga Padilla-Zakour, interim director of Cornell AgriTech and director of the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC), has been working to improve an American consumer favorite: pickles. Collaborating with the CFVC Pilot Plant, its laboratory analysis services and the Cornell High Pressure Processing Validation Center, she’s developed fresh, delicious clean-label pickles. Her research and product development recently helped her win first place at the Institute of Food Technologists meeting in Chicago, where she competed against students from across the country.
What are you researching?
I am studying high pressure processing (HPP) as an alternate method to process pickles. During HPP, a food product is packaged and put in a chamber where it undergoes immense pressure (greater than that at the bottom of the ocean). This destroys bacteria and ensures the product has a long shelf life.
Commercial pickles are typically processed using heat, but heat destroys some of the fresh flavor, color and texture of cucumbers. One of the major benefits of HPP is that it is gentler on freshlike attributes of food products.
The goal of exploring HPP in my research is to create a pickle that is just as crunchy with a fresh appearance and taste.
Right now, I am looking into the mechanisms behind the textural changes in high pressure processed pickles, with a focus on enzyme activity. In the future, we also plan to conduct a consumer study to understand which attributes of our product are liked by consumers.
How does your research align with food market trends?
The demand for plant-based products is rising, and consumers value high-quality, clean-label products. To meet these demands, we need to start thinking about innovative ways to process products while maintaining quality. Traditional thermal processing methods, like pasteurization, are great for safety and extending a product’s shelf life, but high heat degrades nutrition, flavor and appearance. Non-thermal processing methods, like HPP, have grown in their use because of their ability to produce high-quality products. While HPP is already commonly used in beverages, salsa and dips, and even the seafood industry, it is less commonly used on whole fruits and vegetables. Exploring HPP on a whole vegetable product like pickles opens the door to understanding how we can grow the use of this technology to other applications.
Commercial pickles, specifically, are highly processed and low in nutrition. We hope to use this research as an opportunity to create something with less acidity and less salt, to appeal to consumer trends for healthy and clean-label products.
What’s something most people wouldn’t know about the product you research?
If you don’t know a lot about high pressure processing, then you might not know that our high pressure processed pickles come in a bag! Since HPP uses extreme pressure conditions, the packaging needs to be flexible and able to withstand high pressure. Products undergoing HPP are usually packaged in plastic polymer bags. Though you are probably used to consuming pickles out of a glass jar, the benefit of packaging in a bag is it is significantly lighter and more cost effective to transport.
What was your proudest moment at the competition you recently won?
For me, the most rewarding moment was when the judges announced that I won the competition. I was competing against students from other schools with really interesting projects, and even a peer from my own lab whom I admire. I thought everyone did a great job during the competition, so hearing that I won surprised me but also put my imposter syndrome in check. I think it is really easy to forget how hard you work when you are surrounded by successful peers who work just as hard. Realizing I won the competition made me proud because it meant I could showcase my own hard work on the research stage in Chicago, which felt like the perfect culmination to the project I had been working on for over a year.
What inspires you most about food science research at Cornell AgriTech and CALS?
I think what inspires me most is seeing how passionate the professors and staff are about their research. In my experience, everyone is genuinely interested in their research and eager to share it. This makes learning in an academic setting easier and more interesting, and it inspires me to find a career path after graduating which also sparks that type of excitement.
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