Sushi aficionados recognize the shiny, green, paperlike material that's wrapped around bite-sized morsels as nori, a product made of dried seaweed. Over the past 2 years, California researchers have been developing nori alternatives based on a host of terrestrial sources—ones that range from carrots and peaches to broccoli.
These new thin vegetable and fruit films can be laced with spices or fortified with vitamins and other beneficial plant-derived compounds. The goals, explains team leader Tara McHugh, a food scientist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, are to build new markets for U.S. farm crops and develop novel products that will boost people's consumption of fruits and vegetables, which, for most U.S. adults, is now well below optimal levels.
Origami Foods, which is partnering with McHugh's team in the development of these new films, has an additional goal. It's to bring Japanese-style cuisine to palates that don't find traditional nori products appealing, explains company president, Matthew de Bord. Each new film carries the color and characteristic taste of its starting ingredient. An added advantage, he notes, is that these new fruit and vegetable "seaweeds" have the potential of enriching the diet with more and a broader range of nutrients than eating an equivalent amount of nori would.
Already, several chefs are tinkering with prototypes of these films to develop new appetizers and entrees. McHugh says that commercial versions of the films for restaurants and food manufacturers should reach the market "certainly, within a year."
Before earning his masters degree in business administration (MBA), de Bord spent several years living in Japan and learning to appreciate the food. Upon returning home 11 years ago, he began mulling how to make similar foods readily available in the States. Having focused his career on entrepreneurial finance, he suspected there might be a start-up company lurking in such an idea. However, the sushi-lover recalls, he didn't know quite what to tackle first, since "I know most people here have an aversion to seaweed and raw fish."
"Then, one day, I had an epiphany," he told Science News Online. "I thought: What if I could make tomato seaweed?" That was in 1995.
Almost immediately, he bought a food dehydrator, a juicer, a meat slicer, and lots of veggies and became a "kitchen chemist." He'd come home from a day in the finance world to begin experimenting with fresh carrots, spinach, and tomatoes that, maybe, he could turn into dry, paperlike sheets.
Eventually, he commissioned a product-development company to study the feasibility of producing and marketing these veggie versions of nori. In November 2002, the analysts reported to de Bord that such a company might indeed succeed, and they were willing to create it—if de Bord was willing to put up an initial investment of $250,000.
"I didn't have that kind of money," he says. So he was preparing to abandon his dream when he caught a profile of McHugh and her work on a San Francisco television show. She described a new infrared-dehydration system that her team was using to dry fruits and veggies. At once, de Bord called McHugh, and a collaboration was born.
Now, the hard part
The government has a formula for federal-private research and it's called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA. Usually, both parties in a CRADA ante up funds to do directed research toward the commercialization of new technologies—often ones initially pioneered by federal scientists and engineers. But being fairly strapped for funds, de Bord offered to contribute substantial sweat equity toward his share of the research budget.
Explains McHugh, he "actually works in the lab with us now."
Indeed, de Bord jokes, after all the bench work he's done over the past 3 years—most of it under the tutelage of his Agricultural Research Service colleagues—"I feel like my MBA is turning into a food-science degree. I can now ramble on about tensile strength and other food properties, holding my own in discussions with researchers."
Through this work, he has learned a painful lesson: There is no easy way to make seaweed surrogates.
De Bord had come to McHugh's group hoping to get a generic recipe that could be readily adapted to any fruit or vegetable. In other words, he had anticipated that the recipe for transforming a tomato film into a strawberry film would be as simple as swapping a cup of strawberries for a cup of tomatoes. In fact, he's found, "every time I develop a new type of film, I have to start from scratch." The proportion of ingredients, the particular binders or fibers that need to be added, the temperatures for drying a film, the minimum thickness, the speed of the assembly line, and how to make the films paper-flat—all of these features vary with the particular fruit or vegetable and the film's intended use.
For instance, McHugh notes, fruits and veggies tend to be water-soluble. So although her team can make a film solely out of pureed tomatoes, for instance, it falls apart as soon as it becomes moist, such as when used to wrap a dollop of sticky rice.
Her crew has solved the problem with fibrous and waxy additives, and occasionally the development of bilayer films: One veggie-rich layer that keeps out the oxygen that can discolor or degrade pieces of fresh produce might be bound to a layer of some waxy substance that resists moisture.
Despite their promise, learning how to produce bilayer films has proved particularly challenging, McHugh says. However, her team has slowly picked up some rules of thumb. They are part of a patent the researchers applied for late last year for processes to develop nori alternatives.
Several chefs plan to include recipes in their upcoming cookbooks that make use of these products. Sample creations they've developed appear on Origami Foods' Web site. These include variations on traditional sushi, with tomato, carrot, or spinach films in place of nori. The new films have the potential to change the color of sushi—and its flavor. And that's prompted local chefs to experiment with the whole notion of sushi. For instance, one new recipe that emerged wraps rice-encased rolls of pork tenderloin and sweet-potato tempura in a carrot-ginger film. Another carrot and sesame sushi comes swaddled in a lemon film.
Other applications depart from the sushi concept altogether. For instance, apple wedges are being encased in a peach film. Bananas are wrapped in strawberry films. Under discussion: fruit-film-wrapped individual portions of cheesecake, appetizers made from veggie-film encased pieces of quiche, and snack crackers encased in a wholesome veggie coat.
De Bord has even been working with meat processors for more than 6 months on a honey-pineapple flavored apple film to be applied to cooked, spiral-cut hams before they're shrink-wrapped for sale. The meat's moisture will transform this film into a glaze that seeps between the ham slices. When the consumer later reheats the meat, the glaze further permeates the ham.
So far, however, the strongest interest in the new films has come from snack-food companies. Many are looking to reform their products' reputation as junk food. Against this backdrop, de Bord says, they find the idea of encasing snacks in an all-natural and potentially fortified envelope of fruit or vegetable quite appealing.
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