It may seem impossible, but we could survive without smartphones, cars and many of our daily comforts. We cannot, however, live without food.
With the global population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, agricultural researchers and food scientists are striving to meet the food demands of the growing world. That work is happening at the LSU AgCenter Food Innovation Institute.
Launched in July 2013 as the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator, the institute — known as FOODii — began with 10 tenants. Its mission was to develop emerging food ventures and provide technical services to companies to help them survive and grow during the startup period by providing business support, services and resources.
FOODii now boasts 25 to 40 tenants at any given time and is positioned to deliver solutions for today’s food needs while innovating to meet the demands of tomorrow. Through innovation and education, the FOODii of 2021 seeks to ensure a sustainable food supply, protect the environment and improve the economic well-being of the world’s growing population.
LSU AgCenter associate professor Chuck Boeneke explains equipment in the AgCenter Food Incubator’s new bottling line during a tour of the facility. Photo by Olivia McClure
Steve LeBlanc with Our Cousin Vinny’s Red Gravy Pasta Sauce has joined the institute to take advantage of all the professional support services required for a startup food manufacturer.
“You get to start out with confidence because the fear of the unknown is eliminated,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said that now with the availability and aid of Foodii, Our Cousin Vinny’s has a place to facilitate and educate its team to do their own manufacturing.
“All the economies of scale work in our favor as the processor, and we receive more profit to the bottom line,” he said. “As of now we are setting up to expand Our Cousin Vinny’s line items with two new flavor profiles. LSU’s School of Nutrition & Food Science will be helping us with our flavor formulation, nutrition label and so much more.”
The institute’s areas of focus include food product development, marketing products and services, and food safety and security. The last of these is crucial as the prospect of food terrorism targeting processed food becomes a larger threat.
“We are excited about the possibilities presented by the Food Innovation Institute,” said LSU Vice President for Agriculture Bill Richardson. “FOODii is a resource center where budding entrepreneurs learn to produce, promote and protect their food product. Also, the institute is looking at alternative food sources that will safeguard the environment and is prioritizing food security to ensure a safe supply chain and healthy food access for all.”
FOODii is well positioned to grow. The current facilities in Ingram Hall and the Animal and Food Sciences Laboratories Building have 11,323 square feet available. Phase 1, which added a new bottling line, is now operational, and with the addition of Phase 2, the total space will grow to 19,126 square feet. It will feature the bottling line plus refrigeration and freezer spaces, a storefront and more.
“As we’ve grown, so has the need for a larger space to produce these value-added and specialty food products using Louisiana commodities, such as dairy, sugar, rice, seafood and sweet potatoes,” said Gaye Sandoz, FOODii director.
John Panaro also joined the institute as a tenant earlier this year after attending several seminars Sandoz had conducted for the incubator. His business, Panaro Food Innovations, partnered with FOODii to produce healthier sweeteners made with fruits, vegetables and spices. Panaro has a background in food chemistry and culinary arts but was able to get assistance from FOODii staff with product development, designing his logo and packaging and getting the product onto store shelves.
“Everyone has been very helpful, answering all my questions as I try to get my product to market,” Panaro said.
He said he may have been able to successfully launch Immuno Sweet powdered sweetener on his own, but not in the timeframe the institute allowed for. “It would have taken me a lot longer,” he said.
FOODii embraces the concept of “food for the future,” which includes these advances:
— 3D printing of food to deliver meals based on a person’s metabolic panel. FOODii researchers will develop formulations for food capsules that are loaded into a 3D printer to print a meal.
— Alternative sources of food and protein. Partnerships with local businesses make it possible to create sustainable products, such as flour made from insects as well as crops other than wheat.
— Production of meat and seafood from animal and plant cells grown in a cultivator. This type of cellular agriculture expands the food supply and reduces incidences of foodborne illness.
LeBlanc said he is an avid supporter of the institute and its role in growing local businesses.
“It keeps businesses local and allows them to generate income for our economy,” he said.
Gaye Sandoz, director of the LSU AgCenter Food Innovation Institute, is photographed in FOODii’s bottling facility. Photo by Olivia McClure
Equipment in the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator’s new bottling line blows ionized air and vacuums out bottles before sending them down the line to be filled with product. Photo by Olivia McClure
From concept to commercialization, budding entrepreneurs and larger food companies have found success through the LSU AgCenter FOODii. The food and beverage products make their way out of the institute, onto store shelves and into the homes and hearts of consumers. The program has launched thriving businesses and products that benefit the state’s economy. It also helps solve some of the challenges small and large businesses face. FOODii also serves a diverse clientele with 11 women-owned businesses and seven minority-owned businesses.
FOODii works with the Center of Excellence for Crop Biotechnology to use its advanced crop development and improvement methods to grow new food products that meet the demand for plant and protein foods to feed the world.
Food packaging and labeling must appeal to consumers but also meet Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, so FOODii experts research optimal packing use with materials that have a lower environmental impact. Experts also assess the nutritional value of food products for labeling and offer these technical services to major Louisiana companies that once sought these services out of state.
FOODii works with Louisiana Farm to Table to promote and highlight Louisiana products, such as cane sugar, rice flour, pecans, strawberries, satsumas, honey, shrimp and dairy.
In the state-of-the-art AgCenter Sensory Services Lab, faculty and students test new products and provide consultation, consumer tasting and sensory preference services, and education to FOODii clients.
FOODii provides educational programs and training for budding entrepreneurs, existing food companies and students on product marketing, better business practices, point of sale practices and how to start a food business.
FOODii works with the LSU School of Nutrition and Food Sciences to reformulate products to extend shelf life and create functional packaging to reduce spoilage and waste of perishable foods.
Maintaining food security also means awareness of the possibility of food terrorism that targets processed foods. This type of contamination can happen during processing, manufacturing, storage, transport, distribution or service. FOODii provides monitoring education in the area, and the LSU AgCenter’s proposed Agroterrorism Research and Studies Hub can offer preventive food terrorism training.
With AgCenter experts in food safety and food sustainability, the institute will meet the needs of an array of clients and their innovative products, benefiting the entire food industry of the South. These types of innovative products will be driving the way we eat in the decades to come.