Bringing Research to the Table
Cutting-edge research becomes much more palatable
when it’s in the form of cheese and ice cream.
by Kinsey Love
Picking up cheese at a grocery store takes just a few seconds, but producing the cheese takes longer—much longer—and requires a good deal of work. Artisan, or hand-crafted, cheese takes an especially long time to get from farm to table.
Heating, cooling, mixing, drying, and waiting are all part of the cheese making process. Although the basic process is standard, each variety of cheese has unique steps that seem to create its own distinctive flavor. Artisan cheese makers spend years fine-tuning these steps to create rich blends of enticing flavors that define their individual creameries.
Western Dairy Center
Researchers at the Western Dairy Center at Utah State University spend years exploring cheese making processes, studying not only the flavor but the science of cheese and other dairy products. The WDC has become one of the nation’s leaders in cheese research and new technologies, collaborating with other leading dairy researchers throughout the U.S. to develop the latest breakthroughs. Researchers at the Center solve problems, improve dairy products and processes, and then share them with national, regional, and local dairy industries.
“There is always room to grow, and there are always new technologies to discover in the dairy industry,” said Don McMahon, director of the WDC. “Because we share our research with the dairy community in order to improve dairy manufacturing, the research that happens here has the potential to affect the life of anyone who buys dairy products at the grocery store.”
Currently, researchers at the WDC are working on multiple projects. Carl Brothersen, associate director of the WDC, and researchers from USU as well as other institutions are investigating cheeses that can sustain probiotic cultures, live bacteria supplements added to dairy products to help promote the growth of good bacteria in the intestines. These cultures, added to yogurt and other dairy products, improve health.
A team from the WDC led by McMahon and Brothersen, with Marie Walsh, a protein scientist, Silvana Martini, a sensory scientist, both of USU, and Michael Chen, a flavor scientist at Oregon State University, are measuring changes in flavor of milk that has been processed at ultra-high temperatures for a very short time (seconds) so it can be stored without refrigeration. This research includes testing a method for heating milk by passing electricity through it as a means for improving its taste.
Jeff Broadbent, dairy microbiology researcher at USU, McMahon, and other USU researchers are looking into the effects of removing fat from cheese, how to make a more flavorful low-fat cheddar cheese, and how to retain the flavor in cheeses with reduced sodium levels.
The research happening at the WDC literally makes its way to dinner tables in homes across the nation. Research performed at the WDC has clarified the role that calcium plays in controlling the texture of melted cheese so that mozzarella cheeses with lowered fat content still have good melting properties when cooked on a pizza. Researchers have also successfully developed extruded whey protein used in high-protein crisps and protein bars and supplements. Other research has helped the dairy community gain a better understanding of lactic acid bacteria, which affects the flavor of cheeses.
Not only does the WDC provide valuable research for the dairy industry, it is also home to the dairy plant that produces USU’s famous Aggie Ice Cream, aged cheddar, and Aggiano cheeses. The plant is a complete dairy processing facility, capable of producing milk, cheese, yogurt, whey, and concentrated milk, and, of course, ice cream, USU’s most popular dairy product. Utah State University has had a dairy processing laboratory since its founding in 1888, and has been making Aggie Ice Cream for the past 100 years.
Just as the Cache Valley community and the state of Utah have enjoyed the benefits of ice cream technology at USU, the dairy industry as a whole benefits from the WDC. New technologies, processes, and products are shared with the national dairy industry to foster innovation and improvement in dairy products. Research is also shared with western regional dairy processing companies to help their processes and the economic status of dairy companies in the West.
The WDC provides training courses from its facilities at USU. In these courses, research is combined with application to teach students as well as external audiences about food manufacturing and cheese making. The local community also benefits from the Western Dairy Center because it provides classes for small-scale artisan cheese makers and teaches techniques of cheese making.
“The transfer of technology and information from the WDC to communities, both large and small, encourages economic development and productivity in the dairy industry,” said McMahon. “The mission of the Center is to share our knowledge so that it will benefit producers and consumers alike, allowing us to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.”
Whether for mozzarella cheese, Rocky Road ice cream, skim milk, or strawberry yogurt, the WDC provides cutting edge research and technology that improves dairy products and benefits consumers. “The Western Dairy Center strives to improve the dairy community as well as dairy products for the everyday consumer through research,” said McMahon. “It is our goal to ensure that the taste, texture, and nutrition of your cheese, or any dairy product, is as good as it can be.”