For the latest edition of FoodNavigator-USA’s What do you do? series, we caught up with Bunge Oils North America's head of innovation for a (slightly over) 60-second interview on what he’s learned from 23 years in lipid research and innovation, the challenges of taking PHO off product labels, his favorite product that got the axe and why he’s all around fascinated by fat.
Tell us what you do at Bunge.
I’m director of innovation at Bunge North America, which includes the US, Mexico and Canada, though most of our research is done in the US. My work involves looking at short- or midterm—roughly one to three year—innovation in creating new products, technologies and concepts in fats and oils. We go a bit outside fats and oils as well. We did a lot of work on reducing trans fat when that became a big goal several years ago, for example. We have 15-plus patents here and worldwide as well. Then we more recently shifted over to reducing saturates. Now we’re working diligently on creating technologies to reduce saturates 40 to 60% in existing products while maintaining functionality at the same time.
The biggest challenge lately has been taking partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) off labels. The term hydrogenation itself has been a major focus for us. When working with shortenings especially, which is plastics, they give functionality to baking products. So when you take hydrogenation off label, most solids from hydrogenated oils or saturates, how do you maintain structural functionality?
We’re also focusing on health and wellness initiatives. We’ve developed some technologies related to structure lipids that are able to deliver nutritional functionality. Delta oil is a functional, nutritional lipid that’s used in nutritional supplement industry, especially in children’s health. We have also made significant progress on our utilization of phytosterols, which are an excellent source of reducing LDL and triglycerides. Our research focused on building those into structural models you can use in functional products. Above all, it has to taste good, has to function well in the product and it has to have consumer acceptance. Bringing nutritional science into food applications and CLAs are the two areas I have been focusing on for the last 15 years here at Bunge.
How did you get into the R&D side of the food and beverage industry?
I grew up in India and had my undergraduate in agricultural science. I came to the US and studied food science at the University of Maryland. How I end up in the lipid industry is kind of funny.
I went to work for the National Food Processing Association in DC, where I ended up specializing in product development. But always lipids fascinated me. Everybody hates them because they say fats and oils are not good, but that’s not true. They’re good in moderation. They also give a lot of functionality and if you take them out, the product isn’t going to taste the way it should. Obviously we are obese and America getting fatter. At the end of the day, the focus remains on how do we make these lipids better? That intrigued me early on. I then had an opportunity to work in the frying industry, then I moved on to structural lipids, then more so into the broader umbrella of fats and oils. Bunge is one of largest agribusiness companies with an interest in specialty oils. I don’t know how I ended up here [laughs].
What is the most exciting part about your job?
I love my job. The most exciting part is creating new things and looking at new opportunities and new ideas. Seed is born and then how do you take that from concept to commercialization? That’s the exciting part. Optimization, line extentions, no work we do is absolutely new in the sense that it’s not truly groundbreaking. Also skin gotten thickened because 80% of the time you can fail. Have to be persistent and have to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That excites me because you are discovering new things every day, every moment.
Tell us about your favorite innovative product that got the axe.
There have been only a few.You can taste it, almost tasted it and got axed at last minute.
When we started working on structural lipids, we were looking at functionality in terms of creating a spray oil, because when used on a cooking pot it formed this gunk, for lack of a better term. The challenge given to us was to come up with a product that functions as it should but doesn’t leave a residue on the skillet. Understanding what compounds bind in making a tighter bond with the surface of the pot and allow it to stick and create messy stuff, we combined long and medium chain fatty acids, and were able to create structural lipid that gives functionality for cooking but leaves low or no residue.
I’m not a baker or cook—my wife throws me out of the kitchen—but I got very excited. I had two patents on this. We approached one of our largest customers who does cooking spray. They got excited. We worked for an entire year, did trials, and went all the way to the commercial trial. We were at the end of the line when their management decided not to go forward. That was the worst day of my life. 80% of innovations fail at stage one or two; this was stage six or seven. They had spent almost half a million, but somebody on the top said, ‘not this time’, and they pulled the rug from under our feet. I will never forget that moment.
If you could have one "do-over" in your career, what would that be?
I do not regret any decisions I made in my entire professional career. What would I have done differently? Stayed focused on lipids from early on. Obviously my passion built after five or six years in the industry on the lipid side. But I wish I had those five years, because we would’ve made more progress. Starting out, I looked at carbs, protein and sugars. I tried to understand ingredients and their relationship, but lipids fit in with everything and make it better. That fascinates me. What makes lipid so good from a taste and texture functionality perspective?
What is your favorite fat?
My favorite fat is balance. People say I want polyunsaturated, canola or extra virgin olive oil, but I go for balance. Short, medium and long chain fatty acids—some saturates, polys and monos. They all have benefits. So that would my ideal fat. To have a balance of everything in there.
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