Science behind the food we eat

.STUDENTS SENSORY WORK'holbeach campus'17/10/11'students at work with [r] ruth britton
.STUDENTS SENSORY WORK'holbeach campus'17/10/11'students at work with [r] ruth britton
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CLAIRE Hall’s great idea for an alternative drink was an instant hit, though the production method wasn’t great: it was mixed in a bucket.

Five years on and the alcoholic iced tea drink, Percy’s, is even more popular and Claire is on the verge of sorting out production, thanks to the University of Lincoln Holbeach Campus.

The campus – more correctly known as the Department of Food Manufacture and Automation which is part of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing on the Holbeach Campus – is supporting Claire in her endeavours, just as it is bolstering the local, regional and national food industry in any number of ways.

The principal one is through training. It’s not known exactly how many people receive education through the Holbeach Campus each year, but the figure of 2,000 has been used to represent the people who receive assessment at their workplace, the distance learners, the one-day course participants and the students of long-term programmes, such as apprenticeships and degree courses.

Head of Department of Food Manufacture and Automation Professor Gerrit Meerdink explained: “We start off with courses for people who come from abroad, so we do English courses for foreign nationals at different levels. We do basic courses in hygiene and food safety for operatives, and we do apprenticeships at different levels. People can go on to higher education and we offer a foundation degree and a BSc in food manufacturing, and next year people can do an M.Phil, so we go from level 1 for people who are leaving school at 16 until level 8, which is a Masters.

“We are among the biggest providers of training especially for senior staff in the food industry and the foundation degree could almost be called unique; we do not have many competitors.”

Just as food is something that is all-embracing, it seems that the job prospects within the food industry know no boundaries, with students progressing from the factory floor to management positions as a result of training and education.

Lecturer Linda McWatt believes this is something not understood by many of the area’s youngsters, who she feels have an aversion to the idea of working in the food industry. The campus’s link with the University Academy Holbeach – formerly the George Farmer Technology and Language College – offers pupils exposure to what it means to move into higher education as well as creating progression routes, believes Professor Meerdink.

“There is an issue with skills in this area,” he said. “There is a very low percentage of pupils moving into higher education and it’s very difficult for the food industry to get skilled people into their businesses. The general aim is to upskill and give young people opportunities to progress to higher education, but more specifically to help the local and regional food industry by getting more skilled people.”

One part of the research and technical consultancy services the campus offers to businesses is sensory testing, in which panels compare and contrast food stuffs on behalf of businesses doing product development or growers producing a new variety for a specific reason, such as for a supermarket ready meal.

As part of their food technology GCSE studies Year 10 pupils from the University Academy Holbeach had the opportunity to try this for themselves at the campus. They tasted three different portions of tomato soup, one of which contained double the amount of salt, and sampled three different brands of crisps in a preference test. Interestingly, the pupils couldn’t detect the extra salt – our taste buds mature as we grow older and it’s also possible their sensitivity to salt has decreased as a result of diet – and they were evenly split on the preference test. On their next visit the students will experience a factory line.

Another function of the campus is to support local and regional businesses, in particular start up companies such as Claire’s Drink It Ltd, which produces the vodka iced teas.

Claire had no experience of working in the food industry when she came up with her idea for a premium alternative to sweet and fizzy drinks, but the trial of 200 bottles – the original batch mixed in a bucket – went so well Claire knew she had to turn the idea into a business.

Staff at the campus worked with Claire to carry out tests and trials in the lab as well as making sure she had all the necessary training, and the young entrepreneur is now leasing production equipment at the campus. Claire has been producing 2,000 bottles a month, but says: “I am hoping to double the amount I produce for half the cost because of the equipment I’ll be using. It’s going really well. The main thing for me has always been production but it looks as though I have solved it.”

Holbeach Campus is supporting the food industry in many ways, but perhaps the most important is encouraging young people that it’s a business area worth considering for the future.