A sweet sensation

A sweet sensation

Cal State L.A. graduate students make irresistibly healthy treats

Graduate students prepare vegetable chocolates and other treats in the lab.

Team members (l-r) June Gant, Olivia Tzou, Liz Estavillo and Maria Odono prepare their “Choccoli” entry in the food science lab of La Kretz Hall. The team's nutritional bites of vegetable chocolate are disguised in chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate candies and chocolate chip cookies.

Morsels of success

“Choccoli” is just a taste of the types of food product development, innovation and research that has grown out of the University’s Nutritional Science program over the years, professors say.

In the past, the program has garnered attention for graduate student Mary Jo Cantoria’s research project on decreasing allegenicity of peanut allergen proteins, and a faculty and student-developed vegetable waffle.

“The research experience at Cal State L.A. has been great. It has improved my critical thinking skills and made me look at nutrition differently,” said Cantoria, who hopes to continue into a Ph.D. program.

And in Cantoria’s view, the University is just getting started. With the launch of a Food Science and Technology bachelor’s degree program in fall 2009, expect to see even more innovation and discovery with food products, technology and techniques.

For more information about the program, visit the School of Kinesiology and Nutritional Science.

Now, there’s a way for you to have your dessert and eat those vegetables too.

“Choccoli” — which is exactly what it sounds like: a mix of chocolate and broccoli — delivers the essential nutrients and vitamins found in broccoli, in scrumptious, dark chocolate bites.

A team of Cal State L.A. graduate students developed the innovative food product, which mixes broccoli powder with dark chocolate to create healthy candies, chocolate-covered strawberries and chocolate chip cookies. The vegetable-chocolate won the team of four students first place honors at a recent regional food technology competition hosted at a Whole Foods Market, and it might even earn them shelf space at the store.

“There are many functional foods in the market, but nothing quite like ours,” said June Grant, one of the student researchers. “We not only serve people who are trying to eat healthy — but those who don’t want to eat vegetables or who just like sweets.”

Guided by Harmit Singh, assistant professor of Nutritional Science, Grant worked alongside classmates Liz Estavillo, Maria Odono and Olivia Tzou for months to develop the product. They sampled different chocolates, varied proportions and debated vegetable powders.

“I give full credit to Dr. Singh because he was always there, testing our product,” Grant said, adding that once they found the right concoction she was happy to fill in as a tester.

“I’m a chocolate lover. I loved everything and would be like, ‘This one is deformed, so I am going to need to (sample) that,’ ” she said, laughing.

In the end, the team settled on broccoli powder because it is abundant in nutrients — high in vitamin C, calcium and dietary fiber. Using chocolate to mask the strong, acidic flavor was also a greater challenge. “The goal was to make something different. Something where people wouldn’t know that vegetable powder was inside,” Estavillo explained.

The team was so successful at masking the powder they had several repeat consumers (including a 9-year-old girl who snatched up four servings) during the competition sampling, won the $1,500 gold award and received an offer from the Whole Foods Market in Tustin to carry the product if the team decides to manufacture it. They are still debating that possibility, Grant said.

“We are still absorbing the news,” she said. “It was a lot of fun … And now, we are thinking about competing in an international competition.”

Choccoli team members pose with faculty members in the lab.

Health and Nutritional Science professors (l-r) Pera Jambazian and Harmit Singh pose with the “Choccoli” team members - June Gant, Olivia Tzou, Liz Estavillo and Maria Odono - just hours before the regional food technology competition, in which the girls took first place.