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Keeping the crunch


Bowl of crisps

They’re an integral part of British culture and we trough around six billion packets every year according to the Savoury Snacks Information Bureau. The humble slither of fried potato has been around for more than 200 years and has grown to become a snack-box colossus.

Innovations in the crunchy world of crisps are meticulously researched and potentially transformative, although not necessarily commercially successful – think guilty secrets such as cheese and onion, ham and mustard, sweet chilli, prawn cocktail and pickled onion flavours. Improving and fine tuning an established product like the iconic crisp might seem almost impossible. Not so.

When Pipers Crisps — one of Britain’s best-known crisp brands — wanted to understand more about the science behind their premium products and processes they turned to food experts here at the University.

Perfecting the crunch

Through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), supported by Innovate UK, Pipers gained direct access to the Food Flavour and Sensory Science Laboratories in our School of Biosciences and the specialist knowledge of alumna Dr Deepa Agarwal — an expert in food structure, flavour and product development.

Inside the science labs, Deepa used gas chromatography mass spectroscopy to understand the flavour profile and stability of Pipers crisps. With the help of advanced statistical analysis tools she was able to optimise cooking temperatures and times to minimise waste, enhance shelf life without compromising taste perception.

The samples were stored at 45°C in relative humidity controlled incubators for up to eight weeks to simulate shelf life. Deepa then crushed and crunched her way through the samples to analyse and identify every aspect of degradation — of the potato, the oil the crisps were cooked in and the flavours. Her research involved the analysis of nearly 80 different aroma compounds. Having prepared samples, she worked on the frying settings which can affect aroma profile and texture properties of base potatoes and crisps.

Back at the factory, Deepa spent 12 months drawing up a detailed training and selection programme to establish a team of specialist ‘tasters’, which will continue to use their new-found tools to support product development and support day to day quality control.

Developing the flavour

Over the last two years, the KTP has not only helped to enhance the quality of Pipers’ crisps, but staff from across the company have been taught new skills and are now directly involved in the process of product development.

When the company started looking for a new flavour they turned to Deepa to carry out market research and test and develop the flavour formulation provided by existing suppliers. The result was the company’s Wild Thyme and Rosemary flavoured crisps – made using ingredients sourced from the “Atlas Mountains, to the East of Casablanca where over 100,000 acres of wild herbs grow”. She has also been involved in the launch of a new range of slightly salted sweet potato crisps.

The results generated by Deepa offered a fundamental understanding on flavour instability over shelf life. She was able to suggest changes to the production process to increase in shelf life from 28 weeks to 40 weeks. As a result this opened doors to new export market such as South East Asia and the US.

Among those delighted at the success of the KTP was factory manager Richard Mottram (Mining Engineering, 1997).

“As a proud alumnus, I felt a personal as well as professional connection with the KTP, which has ticked some really key boxes. Flavour development and the development of our in-house sensory team have been significant advances. As Factory Manager my job is all about people, and the most pleasing aspect for me has been the connection and relationships established between Deepa and the team here. Deepa hasn’t been viewed as a ‘visiting academic’ — she very quickly established herself as part of our team and that reflects very well on her, the KTP process and the Pipers team.”

Posted on Wednesday 20th September 2017

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