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For Lavanya Venkateswar, a technical innovator in the Food Ingredient space, pairing food science with creativity and technical insights with application development has been a winning recipe throughout her career. Her behind-the-scenes food strategy has resulted in the successful launch of trend-based consumer products across a variety of market applications—from indulgent chocolate brownie fusions and cheddar biscuit mixes to today's trending coffee beverages.

Venkateswar is now leading technical food development initiatives at the Foodology by Univar Solutions North America test kitchen alongside The Hatchery Chicago, a nonprofit food and beverage incubator on the city's West Side. The partnership between Foodology by Univar Solutions and The Hatchery Chicago raises the bar on creating a chef-inspired food laboratory where businesses ranging from small bakeries to large manufacturers can collaborate with scientists and ingredient specialists to help shape the future of food.

What can suppliers and customers expect from the newest test kitchen from Foodology by Univar Solutions?

Our North America food solution center brings all the features and benefits of our global network of solution centers – food scientists and chemists, testing and analysis, hands-on development assistance from concept to the grocery shelf – but adds unique capabilities to assist food and beverage companies of all sizes.

This is the best facility I could imagine, in the best location and geography to leverage not only the strong food and talent pool, but also The Hatchery Chicago's entrepreneurial tradition. And it gives us a state-of-the-art, food-grade kitchen where we can mix, cook, taste, touch, test, analyze, and repeat iterations with customers, providing the hands-on, five-senses approach that is essential for success in food innovation.

"Food innovation requires science and brain power, but it also requires art and nuance. Whether reformulating a flavor or texture, understanding how to turn an innovative dish into a commercial recipe, or conceptualizing, developing and launching a product line, our test kitchens are at the forefront of market trends."

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Lavanya Venkateswar leads the North America test kitchen in Chicago. Her nearly 20 years as a food scientist and brand manager have kept her on the cutting edge of food innovation where she's helped companies create winning products in nearly every aisle.
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Why is this collaboration with The Hatchery Chicago an exciting opportunity for food scientists?

This is exciting! It's not often in your career you can identify a direction, set such a challenging goal, and less than a year later be able to say it's done. We were able to put together an ambitious plan, find the right location, get the capital expenditure lined up and approved, and in this facility stand up something incredibly unique and exciting for the North American food ingredient and beverage markets. But instead of a stand-alone lab or dedicated test kitchen, we partnered with The Hatchery Chicago, the largest food and beverage incubator in the country, as the new home for our food solution center.

The Hatchery Chicago is built for innovation, bringing together technical labs and production kitchens for big-name food brands as well as entrepreneurs, startups, and smaller local food companies that are ramping up production. We'll not only have outstanding facilities and resources in arguably the best food production city in North America, but in The Hatchery we'll also have access to an impressive community of entrepreneurs and innovators, all working to solve food challenges and grow together – essentially a think tank of people and minds on the leading edge of food and beverage development.

A key aspect of The Hatchery's mission is to give back to the community by supporting women- and minority-owned businesses and by helping to advance job opportunities and economic growth in underserved Chicago neighborhoods. Foodology by Univar Solutions is thrilled to play a part in this mission. With our vast supplier network and deep industry expertise across categories and applications, there's tremendous opportunity for us to help these smaller startups source materials and optimize production as they grow.

Foodology by Univar Solutions focuses on supporting customers as a one-stop shop for solving their technical challenges. How does the new food solution center take those concepts to the next level?

As a food scientist and technical specialist committed to bringing better products to market, I'm excited about the benefits and success of having both culinary chefs and culinary development scientists innovating under one roof. Our food solution center will drive technical excellence within the North America food industry and globally as we continue to work on customers' challenges and grow and expand their product lines.

This innovation center brings a state-of-the-art, food-grade kitchen to the community to not only develop and create new concepts but also bring customers and suppliers to us to taste and touch the results. If customers want more browning on the bread, we'll try a little more starch or protein powder and bake another version to taste and test with the customer as the product comes out of the oven. We'll work hands on with customers to create finished products and show them how to create the same products in their production facilities.

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"For our customers, being able to adjust, taste, test, and repeat with the team – as many times as needed – brings better products to market faster. For our suppliers, we can showcase an array of ingredients many customers aren't aware of to bring better flavor, texture, shelf life, economy, and sustainability to more customer production lines."
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Interacting in real time is especially important in food product development. Can you discuss any recent technical challenges? How does the process work at the food solution center?

The ability to make small changes and see, touch, and taste the difference is crucial in food innovation.

For example, one of our bakery customers wanted to create a new fruit filling for a baked pastry product but couldn't get the chemistry right for the mouthfeel without compromising shelf life. We worked with this bakery customer to first find the right pectin and then the right combination of pectin and starch to provide the right mouthfeel. We also suggested using a vinegar powder to achieve the desired shelf life the customer needed.

Adding fermented vinegar as a natural alternative to chemical preservatives also provided a cleaner profile with "free-from artificial" ingredients. The result was a better-tasting, naturally preserved pastry with optimum shelf life that the customer could produce effectively back at their facility.

Another example is a dairy customer that wanted to add a plant-based milk such as oak milk to its product line but didn't know how to start. We showed the development team how to use enzymes and what kind of oat flour to use in the formulation.

We demonstrated how the enzymes help create the right texture and flavor without any chalkiness, and then added a bit of sweetness with a sugar alternative such as erythritol or allulose. The result is a delicious, finished oat milk, which is a top choice for replacing dairy in coffee beverages.

Across categories and applications, we can help tweak formulas but also show customers how to make them, for smaller quantities or for a 10,000-pound run. That's what we can demonstrate in our lab and test kitchens: How do you take a product from creation to large-scale production without sacrificing taste, quality, freshness, or any other indicator?

You say higher-level ingredient sustainability is essential to figuring out better ways to feed people and sustain the planet. What do you mean?

Doing right by the planet so we leave a smaller footprint, using fewer chemicals during production and in the growing process so we leave the soil in a better condition, rethinking how we grow and make food to feed the world with less waste along every part of the food chain – all of these will be crucial to meeting the food and climate challenges we all face. So, for example, while plant-based ingredients are an important part of the sustainability story and vital contributors to better production methods and processes, sustainability in food innovation is bigger than any one trend. As an industry we need to plan, work, and execute with the entire food and production chain in mind. 

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How is this food team working to advance new trends and sustainable ingredients to address the larger issues?

Sustainability is a top consideration for our technical teams. One exciting example that immediately comes to mind is the use of enzymes. Using enzymes or microorganisms in food production is an age-old process – think fermentation – but new advances and methods with novel enzymes are yielding big benefits across applications.

In addition to enhancing flavor and texture, enzymes are a huge enabler of production efficiency, saving energy, reducing water consumption, extending shelf life, and therefore reducing overall food waste. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of how this versatile, natural ingredient can help us push the new frontiers of food.

For formulators trying to capitalize on the plant-based meat craze, we can help launch flavor mixes, sauces, or frozen meals that make meatless products more attractive and delicious to larger audiences. We created a spice mix food companies can add to any protein, water, and oil to create finished products that resonate with today's consumers. It's one thing to create delicious food that people want to eat; it's quite another to perfect the texture and mouthfeel, and then adjust the production details to make sure the desirable products are just as attractive for the manufacturers' bottom lines.

"We're working on concepts customers haven't thought of yet, trying to reimagine ingredients and get ahead of trends to put our suppliers and customers ahead in their categories."

Can you give us a sneak peek into a few food trends you see on the horizon?

An ingredient that is going to take off in 2022 is mushrooms. We're going to see mushrooms in every form as consumers begin to value the ingredient's versatility and ability to enhance a recipe's rich and savory qualities. Potato milk will be trending as consumers seek more dairy-free options. And more spicy foods will be trending, such as flavors from southeast Asia. 

Sometimes customers aren't yet ready to branch out on their own and add trending flavors to their product lines. With our food solution center, we'll be creating the next vegan burger with mushroom powder for flavoring. Or we'll show a customer's product development team what to do with potato milk or exactly how to add a new spice to enhance flavor without overpowering the palette. We'll get companies to start thinking about how they can use these innovative flavors and trendy ingredients to stay ahead of their competition.

One of the most exciting features of our test kitchen at The Hatchery Chicago is we're not just solving problems customers bring to us, although we continue to do that very well. We're also out in front of food trends, guiding customers to what's coming next – and what's possible.

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The Foodology team of culinary chefs, food scientists, and application development experts offers unique insight, deep industry expertise, and innovative food and beverage creations from the food solution center at The Hatchery Chicago.

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How can we work together to create and plate your next product? Discover how our technical team of food scientists and culinary specialists are bringing next-generation solutions to market: univarsolutions.com/foodology

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