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Producers Test New Products in NMSU's Food Product Development Lab

LAS CRUCES - Leticia Orozco's family salsa recipe, made with a special, hand-picked chile from Mexico, goes back more than 40 years. She and her business partner, Tony Bosse, knew that producing the salsa could be a successful enterprise, but they weren't quite sure how to get from the recipe to a finished product on a grocery store shelf.

New Mexico State University sophomore Jesse Stevens volunteers her taste buds at the new food product development lab at NMSU. A five-booth sensory lab enables food processors to use a variety of techniques to control tests based on food texture, flavor and appearance. One technique is to change the color of the lighting in the booth to mask the appearance of the food being tested, so that the product is judged strictly on taste. (11/22/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Orozco and Bosse started by attending a Better Process Control School sponsored by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. They learned how to produce and package their products from Extension food technology specialist Nancy Flores and other experts.

Five years later, after continued consultation with NMSU, their Las Cruces-based business, Aztec Salsa Company, produces three varieties of salsa and is developing a fourth. Their salsas are distributed in Las Cruces, El Paso, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos, and soon will be available in several Wal-Mart stores.

"Nancy's help has been very important," said Bosse. "It really was the first step we took. We didn't know anything about processing."

Producers like these will have access to a new food product development lab at NMSU. The 800-square-foot food lab and adjacent sensory lab will enable small- and medium-sized producers to test family recipes and fine-tune commercial formulations before embarking on full-scale production.

The food product development lab, located on the west side of campus in the Tejada building, is equipped with some $150,000 in commercial kitchen equipment, from a pasteurizer and freeze dryer to an industrial-sized oven and stove. Funding for the lab and equipment came from grants, as well as a $130,000 capital outlay appropriation from the New Mexico Legislature to cover final construction.

While New Mexico is well-known for producing chile and onions, the lab will enable more New Mexico businesses to process food products using those crops, said Rich Phillips, food technology program coordinator for NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. The lab will help New Mexico businesses that are not large enough to have their own research and development capability, and the lab will be a new opportunity for students to learn valuable skills in food product development research, he said.

The sensory lab gives producers the ability to conduct strictly controlled tests on texture, flavor and appearance. It includes five booths for taste testers, who are seated behind pass-through windows that open into the food tech lab. A separate heating and cooling system lets food processors control the airflow, which keeps cooking odors away from taste testers. Even the color of the lighting in the sensory lab can be controlled, which Flores said helps focus decision-making on the taste itself, rather than the appearance of the food being tested. For example, a yellow light used to test granola bars gives the food a more uniform appearance. Visual clues about the contents of the granola bars are masked, helping testers judge products on taste.

Phillips said the lab will be a resource for producers across New Mexico. "It can benefit anyone in the food industry," he said. The lab also will be open to NMSU students for research.

For more information about the lab, contact Flores at (505) 646-1179.