Title: Serving up science and an image of cow and clouds

When Penn State opened its doors as a land grant educational institution in 1855, its primary mission was to address the longstanding agricultural challenges of food production using the scientific and technological knowledge of the period.

Established in the rolling, green hills of central Pennsylvania, the new school, called the Farmers’ High School, chose dairy farming and production as a focus for study and research. Its modest beginnings included a small herd of cows and a one-room, wooden building that housed a manual butter-making operation, along with a blacksmith shop and hayloft.

Today, Penn State lays claim to one of the premier food science departments in the country. With an expansive new teaching and research facility and dairy processing plant, the University continues to apply state-of-the-art technology to the study of food production.

historic.jpgHistoric photos courtesy of University Archives


Open for Business

On a hot summer’s day in August 2006, after years of planning and construction, Penn State opened the doors to its new $46 million Food Science Building. Already one of the top universities in the country for dairy education and research, the new facility helped catapult Penn State’s reputation to a position of leadership in food science education, research, and technology.

Picture of the Creamery

The Berkey Creamery, named in recognition of a generous donation by Jeanne and Earl Berkey, is located on the first floor of the 136,000 square-foot building. The couple, owners of the Berkey Milk Company in Somerset until 1968, is closely affiliated with Penn State. Over the years, five Penn State graduates served as superintendents for the company, and their plant was at one time used for University milk testing.

Penn State’s Berkey Creamery processing plant and store occupy the first floor of the Food Science Building. The Creamery is well known for being the largest university creamery in the country, and as other university operations close, Penn State’s Creamery continues to flourish.


Churning Out a Creamery Legacy

“The reason for the Creamery’s success is people,” Tom Palchak, Creamery manager since 1987, explains. “We have great staff and faculty—a first-rate facility, thanks to our alumni and friends—and almost immediate access to new discoveries by Penn State researchers.”

The Creamery’s current success is also built on the shoulders of scholars and administrators of previous times. Evan Pugh, Henry Armsby, Andrew Borland, and Philip Keeney are familiar names to many Penn Staters. All were instrumental in the development of the modern scientific approach to agricultural practices, and it is their foundation that sustains today’s achievements.

In addition to a processing plant and store, the Creamery also serves as an academic and research support unit for the Food Science Department, providing students with valuable hands-on experience in the areas of product development and marketing. This real-world experience serves Penn State students well as they apply for employment and outside internships.

The second floor of the Food Science Building holds the outreach center that contains the rooms and teaching technologies used in Penn State’s Short Courses. The Ice Cream Short Course is the oldest and perhaps best-known program of its kind in the nation. Ice cream professionals, as well as aspirants, come from countries as far away as Israel, Norway, and South Africa to learn the art of ice cream making. The quirky ice cream company, Ben and Jerry’s, got its start after co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a $5 correspondence version of the course in 1977.

Image of Tom
"I make a point of eating ice cream every day… It's a rough job but somebody has to do it."
Tom Palachak,
Creamery Manager
Vanilla Ice Cream
Choosing a vanilla cone might seem like a bland choice compared to some of the other flavors the Creamery offers, but with vanilla beans grown and harvested in Madagascar, it is a classic taste that serves up just as much punch as the others. And since vanilla is the Creamery’s most popular flavor, it’s clear that Penn Staters agree.

We All Dream of Ice Cream

Many Penn Staters would agree that Creamery ice cream is synonymous with the Penn State experience. As essential as attending a football game at Beaver Stadium or posing for a photo at the Nittany Lion Shrine, an ice cream cone from the Creamery provides customers with a taste of Penn State.

Like other ice cream, Penn State’s contains a number of ingredients that contribute to its mouth-watering flavors and textures. Milk fats give ice cream its rich, smooth texture. The higher the milk fat content, the yummier the ice cream. Penn State ice cream is considered premium because of its high fat content.

Stabilizers improve smoothness in ice cream, prevent ice crystal formation in storage, give uniformity of product, and desired resistance to melting.

Emulsifiers are used to produce a stable suspension of two liquids that do not mix naturally. In the manufacturing of ice cream, small amounts of emulsifiers are used to produce a dry, stiff, and smooth product.

Sugars play an important role in the ice cream making by improving the flavor, texture, and palatability of the product while also lowering the ice cream’s freezing point. The balance between “too hard to eat” and “too quick to melt” is carefully controlled for in the amount and type of emulsifiers and sugars added to the mixture. Pure cane sugar is the primary flavoring material of all high quality ice cream.

bittersweet mint ice cream
Bittersweet Mint:
Arguably the most luxurious ice cream Berkey Creamery produces, Bittersweet Mint is made with Wilbur’s Brandywine Bittersweet Chocolate, a high-end chocolate so pure it virtually liquefies right in the palm of your hand.

From Field to Fork

Food science at Penn State, however, is much more than just ice cream. The department faculty and graduate students perform focused research in six primary areas of interest: plant and mushroom products; ingredients as materials; food safety; family and community food systems; dairy foods manufacturing; and cocoa, chocolate, and confectionary products.

Most of the research is carried out on the third and fourth floors of the Food Science Building. There are eighteen state-of-the-art research labs specifically equipped for particular areas of study, including molecular biology, food biochemistry, engineering, food microbiology and safety, and dairy product research.

The collaboration of food science and technology has evolved over the decades into a multidisciplinary field of study that has been instrumental in the development of a safer, more diverse, and nutritious national food supply. From new farming methods that ensure healthier, sturdier crops, to the appearance and texture of packaged foods, our world is becoming more and more reliant on food science.

The technologies used by food scientists are many and varied and play an essential role in supporting state-of-the-art research. For example:

  • Computer modeling is used by food scientists to describe the physical and biological transformations that occur in food during manufacturing. At Penn State, computer modeling also is used to research the acquisition of water and essential nutrients by the root systems of corn and bean plants.
  • Databases such as the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Farmers’ Market Directory, which is a compiled list of farmer’s market resources, including locations, hours, number of vendors (as well as payment information), provides the public with easy access to large quantities of useful information.
  • Food irradiation, used primarily to preserve and sterilize food, is similar to the pasteurizing process. Rather than implementing heat, radiant energy is harnessed to break chemical bonds and destroy the most harmful strains of bacteria found in foods.
  • Genome sequencing, is used by Penn State researchers to develop methods for creating stronger cacao plants by identifying gene families that impact the plant’s ability to resist disease.
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMR), the biotech version of an MRI, provides information on the composition of food without having to alter it. NMR is one of the most precise methods for tracing water movement in plants. The technology is also used to examine the chemical makeup of soil, and foods during the manufacturing process.
  • Qualitative and quantitative data collection, in the form of electronic surveys, are used to investigate public opinion. Since attitudes and beliefs of consumers are integral to the widespread acceptance, or rejection, of new food products, this data gathering tool is highly valuable to scientists.
  • Spectroscopy and chromatography are technologies used to determine nutritional information that appear on packaging labels.

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image of roots
Root Research Benefits Third World Countries
Jonathan P. Lynch is a professor of plant nutrition in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Part of his research focuses on plant root architecture, and improving crop yields as a way to combat world hunger. In 2009, Lynch and his colleagues established the Ukulima Root Biology Center in the Republic of South Africa with support from the Howard G Buffett Foundation. He is also part of several projects to improve crop yields on poor soils with support from the National Science Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Agency for International Development, the Generation Challenge Program, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finding ways to sustainably feed over 7 billion people is a major challenge for today’s world. Farming methods that are successful in wealthy nations are not always viable in developing countries because of poverty, and the lack of resources and technologies such as fertilizer and irrigation. As these problems have become more prevalent, efforts such as increasing the productivity of land and labor; improving food security (to ensure a bad season does not cause widespread hunger); and sustainable use of natural resources have become important areas of research for Jonathan Lynch and his colleagues.

At the Ukulima Root Biology Center, Lynch’s research focuses on the development of crops, specifically corn and beans, which will grow more readily in conditions of soil depletion with limited water supplies. Lynch has discovered that the characteristics and shapes of roots play a crucial role in the acquisition of water and essential nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen.

To gain greater insight into the problems of soil resource acquisition, Lynch uses computer simulation to construct three-dimensional models that provide him with a more comprehensive picture of the relationships between root shapes and their functions.

Computer simulation provides a way for researchers, like Lynch, to get a handle on complex interactions involving numerous variables. In Lynch’s research, modeling helps him recognize critical factors that are difficult to measure on real roots growing in soil.

Global food security impacts the lives of millions, particularly the world’s poorest. Lynch and his colleagues have responded to this crisis by developing partnerships in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to find workable and sustainable solutions.

Today, third world nations are realizing improved crop yields due to the research conducted by Lynch and his colleagues. Through the development of improved bean varieties, Lynch is helping to feed the world.■

keeny beany ice cream
Keeney Beany Chocolate:
This chunky double chocolate ice cream made with cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast of Africa, is dedicated to Dr. Philip Keeney, aka “the emperor of ice cream,” a famous teacher and scientist who specializes in ice cream and chocolate technology.

Technology With a Human Touch

The manufacture of Creamery ice cream is accomplished in the processing plant located behind the Creamery store on the corner of Bigler and Curtin roads. Raw milk, from the Penn State cow barns, is delivered every two days to the plant and kept isolated in a refrigerated silo until tested by the Creamery's laboratory director for bacteria and milk-fat content.

Once tested, the milk and other ingredients are mixed together, then homogenized and pasteurized. Next, it is aged for twenty-four hours to allow coalescence of milk fat. Liquid flavorings are added and production continues in a special continuous freezer that injects a specific amount of air into the mixture and quickly cools it.

The “not quite” ice cream mixture is then channeled through a rotating stainless steel “dasher” that serves to mix the ice cream while simultaneously scraping newly frozen mix off the inside surface of the freezing chamber. It is at this point in the manufacturing process where the human element takes over for a second time. “In the highly automated world of ice cream making, we use technology to make our product safe and consistent, but the human touch is still needed,” explains Palchak. “It requires a knowledgeable person to decide when the mixture becomes the finished product.”

Once deemed ice cream and ready for packaging, the product is moved to a “hardening room” where it is kept at -35 degrees F (-37.2 C) to prevent large ice crystals from forming, ensuring the smooth and creamy consistency.

image of TomOne of several “Human-Machine Interface” screens in the Creamery processing plant

Each step in this process is accomplished using computer-integrated manufacturing, in which the production process is controlled with computers. Much of the equipment on the production floor is produced by Ecolab, Inc., a company specializing in food safety and infection prevention.

Individuals passing by the Creamery windows might notice the towering, stainless steel vessels and pipes connecting them. Much less apparent to viewers, however, is the backbone of the Cat5 networking cable, which enables the system’s computers to interface with and coordinate the facility’s inner workings. In fact, the cables and Ethernet switches at the Creamery are the very same found in a typical campus computer lab. Each piece of monitoring equipment in the plant even has its own equivalent of an “IP address.”

At the heart of it all is a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), which communicates with sensors and switches to ensure that everything works as it should. This device sends signals to energize valves, turn on motors for pumps, and reads data for temperature, fluid flow rates, and pressure for tank levels.

However, the system is not fully autonomous. Located throughout the plant are computer terminals equipped with “Human-Machine Interface” software which allows operators to control the entire process. Screens—created for each plant function, such as milk receiving, milk pasteurization, ice cream making, cheese making, and bottle filling—provide an overall view of the different plant operations. Operators can control start and stop functions, monitor levels and temperature readouts for tanks, and are notified by the PLC each time the various desired inputs and conditions are met.

Keeping the operation safe and sanitary is the responsibility of a Clean-in-Place system which washes the machines and tanks, and the pipes connecting them. This process, too, is controlled by the PLC and initiated by a human operator. A record of all cleaning fluid temperature, flow, and chemical strength is automatically compiled in compliance with FDA documentation rules.

Peachy Paterno ice cream
Peachy Paterno:
Named after the football coach we all know and love, Peachy Paterno consists of peach ice cream, peach slices and a nectarine puree that is made with peach schnapps for a taste that’s as unique as JoePa himself.

Serious Moo-tivation

In his 2009 book, Ice Cream U: The Story of the Nation’s Most Successful Collegiate Creamery, former Penn State archivist Lee Stout explains that, “a century ago, the [University’s] average production was 5,285 pounds of milk per cow, per year. Today it is over 24,000 pounds.

Perhaps it isn’t an exaggeration to say food scientists have revolutionized the dairy industry.

Penn State’s dairy barns also have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Today the University’s barns operate under a system that integrates the timeless demands of nature with the innovative power and efficiency of information technology.

Making Creamery ice cream takes a lot of human ingenuity, but Penn State’s dairy cows deserve some credit of their own. On the north side of campus in the University’s Dairy Production Research Center, 200 bovine beauties start each day at 5:00 a.m., where they are led into fully-automated milking stalls for their day’s first milking, followed by a second daily milking at 5:00 p.m.

Each cow produces approximately nine to ten gallons of milk per day—only half the milk necessary to meet the Creamery’s demand. The other half is sourced from two family-owned farms in Bellefonte. Given the number of ice cream loving Penn Staters and visitors, it takes serious “moo-tivation” to produce enough ice cream to make an astonishing 750,000 ice cream cones and bowls per year, as well as 200 milkshakes per day.

There is no question that the Penn State dairy cows work hard, but so do their human friends. The University dairy barns are operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by trained herd managers, undergraduate and graduate students, and other experienced staff. All dairy workers responsible for milking and caring for the cows must comply with a strict set of standards to ensure the cows maintain optimum health. This dedication translates into happy cows and large quantities of safe, quality milk.

The dairy facility uses more technology than ice cream lovers might expect. Like any modern workplace, the barns are networked with high-speed Internet access. Attached to each cow’s back foot is a pedometer and transponder (the pedometer keeps track of how active the cow is from day to day). A dramatic increase in activity indicates an optimum time for breeding.

image of a cow transponderPenn State cows wear radio frequency ID “bracelets” to assist with record keeping

The transponder, using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, transmits the cow’s identification number as it enters the milking stall. In addition to documenting the amount of milk produced at each milking, a computer also gathers and reports the flow rate of the milk at different intervals throughout each milking. By looking at the stats, the herdsmen can tell if the cows are being milked properly. Once the flow rate decreases to a certain value (preprogrammed into the computer), the milking machine turns off automatically.

Additionally, the software keeps a detailed history of each cow’s general health and productivity levels, including a record of vaccinations, illnesses, fat and protein content of produced milk, and breeding information.

Milk may come from cows, but it takes human innovation and technology to bring the milk from the cow, through the processing plant, and into a scoop of yummy Peachy Paterno ice cream. Nowadays, the fusion of data sharing and quality control—coupled with data storage, management, and reporting capabilities are all IT functions the herdsmen rely on to keep the barns running and the Creamery supplied with milk.

In the words of Nadine Houck, Penn State dairy barns’ assistant manager, “we have 450 animals in our herd, 200 of those we milk twice a day. It would be an impossible task without the technology to keep them healthy and producing.”

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image of a pile of chocolate
Mark Guiltinan is a professor of Plant Molecular Biology in Penn State’s Department of Horticulture, and is part of a cooperative international effort to sequence and analyze the genome of the Criollo variety of the cacao plant. He currently runs the Guiltinan Lab, a division of the Department of Horticulture that studies crop improvement and sustainable farming methods.

Since the 16th century, when chocolate became the preferred luxury food of European royalty; people around the globe have cultivated a sweet tooth for this gourmet treat. But despite the incredible popularity of the substance, chocolate is surprisingly difficult to produce.

Unlike staple crops, such as corn and soy, cacao trees have not been researched extensively or engineered to resist disease. In fact, many of these trees do not yield enough cacao to meet the growing international demand for chocolate. While nearly 70% of the world’s chocolate is grown and harvested in West Africa, cacao farmers often live in impoverished conditions. An outbreak of disease among their plants can have devastating consequences on the farmer’s livelihoods, as well as the local economy.

With the computational support of Penn State’s computer clusters, Guiltinan’s team contributed to sequencing and analysis of the entire cacao genome and studying the specific gene families of the Criollo variety of the cacao plant that relate to disease resistance. Although the Criollo plant produces a fine-flavored, high quality chocolate, it is highly susceptible to disease. By understanding the cacao genome and ultimately breeding disease resistant cacao trees, Guiltinan hopes his research will provide economic, social, and environmental benefits to the world’s chocolate-producing nations.

Early efforts in genome sequencing were time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive. As a result of relatively recent advancements in the technology, genome sequencing is more efficiently accomplished and is less expensive for researchers to use.

Guiltinan’s lab works with a database called Genome Browser (GBrowse) that allows genome sections of the Criollo plant to be viewed graphically, and displays quantitative and qualitative data in a user-friendly format. GBrowse runs via a computer cluster, which is a group of interconnected computers that work together as a singular, powerful machine. The database is housed and managed at a collaborating laboratory in CIRAD, Montpellier, France.

Since completion of the genome, many new possibilities for research on cacao have opened up. Guiltinan’s team has created a whole genome micro-array, capable of measuring the expression levels of all cacao genes in a single experiment. They also have used the sequence to generate a predicted “proteome,” which has allowed the team to begin identifying protein expression levels using mass spectrometry, a method previously only useful in model plant species. Guiltinan’s lab has begun using these tools to further understand the mechanisms of disease response, and to screen for new varieties of cacao plants with traits useful for breeding super chocolate trees of the future.■


Ice Cream and More

Just as the flavors of Creamery ice cream have multiplied over the years, the University also has grown in its academic, research, and outreach endeavors. Knowledge and resources provided by Penn State scientists help those in developing countries to improve crop yields, revitalize soil, and address the problems of limited water supply. Students and faculty travel around the globe as caring ambassadors, working toward a time in the future when hunger will be completely eliminated from the planet.

And what could be sweeter than that?

Contributing Writers: Heidi Beman, Jackie Campbell, Lauren Ingram, Joseph Weeks

ice cream scoops

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