Whether it’s ice cream or veggie burgers, there’s a good chance Sarah Masoni has had something to do with the way it tastes.
For 18 years, Masoni has worked in product and process development at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, specializing in helping local entrepreneurs produce and sell the visions they have for their food.
Masoni, who is now the center’s director, discussed what it takes to develop a snack for supermarket shelves, and what those snacks could taste like in the future, as part of the Columbia Forum speaker series Tuesday night at Baked Alaska.
Masoni got much of her inspiration from her father, who was a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. One year, while on sabbatical, he took the family around on a European tour of dairies, where Masoni learned to make cheese.
“I like to say I got my Ph.D at the dinner table,” Masoni said.
She moved to Oregon to study food science at Oregon State like her father in 1982, but eventually switched her major to art.
“I have found my creative side has been pretty useful,” she said. “Our industry has always been very interested in the science of food. I always felt like the development of food is diminished.”
Masoni started her career making cheese in Tillamook at the Blue Heron French Cheese Co. and lasted six months before realizing “she was not cut out for living at the beach.” She moved to Portland to work as a lab technician, where she worked with people on how to extend the shelf life of their products.
After briefly working at Gardenburger, Masoni came to find out about the Food Innovation Center, where she began helping entrepreneurs realize, produce and commercialize their food dreams, eventually giving herself the title of “food designer.”
“I decided that if there could be car designers, people designing houses ... why couldn’t I be a food designer?” she said.
Each client starts with an “ideation session,” where Masoni helps brainstorm what they would like to make. They buy the food products they think it will take to make it, decide on a few ideas, and go to the lab to start experimenting.
Sometimes, the process means just figuring out how to sell something that already exists in a bottle or a jar that will last on the grocery store shelves.
Other times, it can mean figuring out a way to dye brown Oregon sea cucumbers black to be more appealing to Asian food markets. More notably, it means developing brand new flavor profiles that have come to define Portland’s famous Salt and Straw ice cream brand.
A large part of the process is understanding trends in what types of flavors consumers prefer. Over her 20-year career, Masoni has witnessed the rise and fall of many flavor fads. One of her favorite examples is kale, which 15 years ago was maybe only used in the occasional smoothie.
“Today, do you remember when all of the kale sold out during Snowmageddon in Portland?” she said.
But there are some changes in flavor preferences Masoni believes are around to stay. With the internet, people have access to recipes and ingredients they otherwise would have never heard of, broadening people’s palettes. People’s taste buds are changing, too, as sensitivities to heat, salt and sugar diminish.
With federal laws changing, Masoni expects to see more experimentation with cannabinoid-infused food.
But one of the most significant trends in food innovation, Masoni said, is driven by a growing desire for more natural flavorings, as well as meat and dairy alternatives.
Products like nondairy butter, using seaweed to mimic a cheesy flavoring for popcorn, and using plant-based proteins to replace meat will be the food innovation of the future.
“What we’re trying to do with flavor is use whole foods to create flavor and stay away as much as possible from putting artificial flavors into foods,” she said. “I think people like transparency ... they want to know exactly what food is in their food.”