When Pipers Crisps — one of Britain’s best-known crisp brands — wanted to understand more about the science behind their premium products and processes they turned to food experts at the University of Nottingham.
This Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), supported by Innovate UK, was established in 2015. Over the last two years it has not only helped to enhance the quality of Pipers’ crisps but staff from across the company have been taught new skills and are now directly involved in the process of product development.
The partnership between industry and academia gave Pipers direct access to the Food Flavour and Sensory Science Laboratories in the School of Biosciences and the specialist knowledge of PhD student, now Dr, Deepa Agarwal — an expert in food structure, flavour and product development.
Deepa has divided her time between the Pipers factory at Brigg in Lincolnshire and the University’s Sutton Bonington Campus in Leicestershire. Dr Ian Fisk, an expert in food chemistry, was the academic advisor on Deepa’s KTP. He said: “The KTP has enabled my research group to work directly with a rapidly developing SME, understand the practical and commercial issues in snack food production whilst delivering high quality science. The process and project has been very positive and has had a real impact both in the University and the company.”
Understanding the microstructure of crisps
Inside the science labs Deepa used gas chromatography mass spectroscopy to understand the flavour profile and stability of Pipers crisps. With the help of advanced statistical analysis tools she was able to optimise cooking temperatures and times to minimise waste, enhance shelf life without compromising taste perception.
The samples were stored at 45°C in relative humidity controlled incubators for up to eight weeks to simulate shelf life. Deepa then crushed and crunched her way through the samples to analyse and identify every aspect of degradation — of the potato, the oil the crisps were cooked in and the flavours. Her research involved the analysis of nearly 80 different aroma compounds.
Having prepared samples, she worked on the frying settings which can affect aroma profile and texture properties of base potatoes and crisps.
New sensory testing team
Back at the factory Deepa spent 12 months drawing up a detailed training and selection programme to establish a team of specialist ‘tasters’. Drawing on her training in sensory science she looked for staff with untapped expertise in all five senses — hearing to define texture, taste, smell, touch and sight.
This team — drawn from across the company from the board room to the factory floor — will continue to use their new-found tools to support product development and support day to day quality control.
The final professional and personal challenge
When the company started looking for a new flavour they turned to Deepa to carry out market research and test and develop the flavour formulation provided by existing suppliers.
Deepa said: “Our market research showed that more and more people are beginning to prefer vegetarian food as a day time snack. I am vegetarian so that was good. But the brief was for something not too spicy. I am Indian, I love spices! But we needed to find something not too spicy, so that challenged my preference for spicy food.”
Working with the flavour house the result was the successful introduction of a new vegetarian flavoured crisp — wild thyme and rosemary.
She said: “I tested it out with the sensory trained panel. They assessed the flavour formulation. We also tested the shelf life of the product — sensory analysis from age zero to fully aged samples. Sensory testing with the trained panel helped us to explain the changes in taste using the technical analysis from the lab. For instance, for the recently launched slightly salted sweet potato crisps, the results influenced the cooking process to achieve a great tasting new product and firmly established the importance of the role of the new tasting team.”
The legacy of this research
The results generated by Deepa during this project offered a fundamental understanding on flavour instability over shelf life. She was able to suggest changes to the production process to increase in shelf life from 28 weeks to 40 weeks. As a result this opened doors to new export market such as South East Asia and the US.
She has been closely involved in the launch of two new products, the Wild Thyme and Rosemary crisps and a new range of slightly salted sweet potato crisps.
James McKinney, Managing Director, said: “Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) play a key role in putting science behind the things we do. It gives us a sound evidence base for our decision making. We aren’t a health food — we are a premium product – but it is important we look at the ways to reduce and manage fat levels and salt content in our products.”
Dr Deepa Agarwal was awarded her PhD in December 2016. Her thesis — Impact of polymeric additives on the functional properties of microfibrillar cellulose — focused on the fundamental understanding of food structure and application of unique natural ingredients in low fat food products. Her PhD was supervised by Tim Foster, Professor in Food Structure and Head of the Division of Food Sciences, and was sponsored by the speciality ingredient company Borregaard AS and the Norwegian government. She continues to share her expertise in food structure and sensory science with Pipers.
Trevor Gregory, who supports the KTP initiative on behalf of Innovate UK, said: “This KTP has proved to be one of our big success stories with all three partners (the Associate, the University and the Company) benefitting from participation. The transfer and embedding of the knowledge from the University into the company has increased fundamental understanding of the product. This has led to the opening of market opportunities for export which were previously not available.”
Pipers Crisps was set up 13 years ago. The company now employs around 80 people at its manufacturing base in Brigg, Lincolnshire.
Among them Richard Mottram, Factory Manager and University of Nottingham engineering graduate. He said: “As a proud alumni of the University of Nottingham (Mining Engineering 1997), I felt a personal as well as professional connection with the KTP we’ve been running. This KTP has ticked some really key boxes, flavour development and the development of our in-house sensory team have been significant advances. As Factory Manager my job is all about people, and the most pleasing aspect for me has been the connection and relationships established between Deepa and the team here. Deepa hasn’t been viewed as a ‘visiting academic’ — she very quickly established herself as part of our team and that reflects very well on her, the KTP process and the Pipers team.”
Pipers now export to the US, Canada, Germany, Denmark.
Beacons of Excellence
The University of Nottingham’s expertise in food has been recognised as part of a £200 million investment. Future Food is one of six Beacons of Excellence – multi-disciplinary research groups focused on finding solutions to a global challenge. Led by Professor David Salt it aims to address the challenge of feeding a growing population in a changing world.
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