Walking down the snack-food aisle at a convenience store one of these days, you might be surprised to find bags of crispy lentil snacks nestled among the usual greasy, guilty pleasures.
Even more astonishing would be to see someone pass over the Cheetos, pick up a bag of the lentils, and say, Yum, love those legumes.
Washington State University researchers and a national lentil farmers organization are collaborating on a project to create and market puffed lentils as healthyyet tastysnack and breakfast foods. The groups aim to increase consumption of lentils in the U.S., and thereby boost the economic return from lentils, which are grown in larger quantities in the Inland Northwest than anywhere else in the world.
Pete Klaiber, director of marketing for the U.S.A. Dry Pea & Lentil Council based in Moscow, Idaho, says farmers in the region use lentils as a rotation crop to replenish nitrogen in soil and make fields more fertile. Since the U.S. exports nearly 80 percent of its lentil crop, the price of lentils depends on worldwide lentil production and the strength of the dollar in world markets, he says.
Juming Tang, a biological systems engineering professor at WSU who is leading the research team for puffed lentils, says the lentil snacks he and his associates are developing could help stabilize the U.S. lentil market so that farmers wouldnt have to rely on foreign markets as much.
Were working on converting lentils that are produced in the Palouse area into products that most Americans would consume, Tang says.
Tang says he began studying methods for creating the lentil snacks about seven years ago. The WSU group hes leading has worked closely with the lentil council on the project, he says.
The WSU researchers have spent about $80,000 so far on developing technology to create the lentil snacks, and have received a $60,000 grant from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered through the University of Idaho to continue the research this year, he says.
Tang says he and his associates adapted technology thats used to make snack foods like Cheetos and certain breakfast cereals to create the puffed lentil snacks. The researchers deposit a dry mixture of raw, ground lentils, apple fibers, and potato starch into a machine called an extruder, which pressurizes and heats the mixture, he says.
When the mixture exits the extruder, the pressure change creates a puffing effect, then steam that flushes through the mixture creates a crunchy texture, he says.
Many food producers use extrusion, but not to make lentil products, Tang says. The WSU researchers extrusion process creates air-filled lentil pieces that resemble corn-based cereals, but have more protein and fiber and less starch than the cereals or snack foods, he says.
Lentils typically are consumed in soups and often must be soaked about 30 minutes before they can be cooked, Tang says. The lentil snacks, however, dont require preparation before consumptionyou just tear open the bag and pop them into your mouth, he says.
WSU researchers are working with a Vancouver, British Columbia-based snack-food organization to apply flavored coatings to the bland lentil pieces, Tang says. One type of coating gives the lentils a cheesy taste like that of Cheetos, and another gives them a honey flavoring similar to some breakfast cereals, he says.
Tang says he and his associates introduced the unflavored lentil snacks at the National Lentil Festival, in Pullman, last year, and conducted an informal taste test there. Surprisingly, more than 75 percent of the 200 survey participants said they liked the lentil snacks, while about 2.5 percent said they consume lentils on a regular basis, he says.
The researchers expect better responses from survey participants this year at the festival, in August, because the lentil snacks will be packaged and flavored, Tang says. They also received positive feedback at a Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute Technology Showcase earlier this year, he says.
Liz Wilhite, director of technology at SIRTI, says she liked the cheesy-flavored lentil snacks she munched on at the showcase. Theyre like Cheetos, but taste better, she says.
The unflavored lentil snacks taste much like the cereal Kix, more so than the sweetened snacks, which leave a slight unusual aftertaste.
Working toward commercialization
One of Tangs research associates at the USDA Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., Jose Berrios, is working to refine the extrusion process and develop more varieties of the lentil snacks for the lentil festival, Tang says. Meanwhile, he is trying to obtain a patent for the extrusion technology, and the lentil council is seeking ways to market the products, he says.
If the groups bring the products to market successfully, the value of lentil crops likely will increase and farmers wont have to rely on foreign markets as much, he says.
Denny Davis, another biological systems engineering professor at WSU, says lentil prices generally are low because consumers dont consider them to be attractive products.
Davis, who recently led a team of students working on a senior project related to Tangs research, says the Pacific Northwest is one of relatively few lentil-producing areas in the world.
In an area like the Palouse, where a lot of wheat and barley is being grown, you need crops that can return nutrients to the soil, he says. Peas or lentils do that.
Klaiber says that about 167,000 acres are planted in lentils in the Pacific Northwest on average every year, and 90,000 metric tons of lentils are produced. Lentils produced in the region currently sell for $13.50 to $14.50 per hundredweight, he says.
Todd Scholz, director of information and research for the lentil council, says that at such prices lentil crops generate about $185 per acre. With production costs of about $217 per acre, farmers typically lose about $32 per acre, he says.
Generally its a losing operation if you include the cost of replacing equipment and all the other production costs, he says.
The lentil snacks being developed by Tang and his team would provide a major benefit to Pacific Northwest farmers because they would create another market for lentils, Davis says. That market could be more profitable for lentil farmers because consumers likely would be more attracted to the healthy snacks than they would be to lentils in soup, he says.
The team that Davis directed included biological systems engineering students and marketing students who studied ways to commercialize the lentil snacks, Davis says. Those students also examined what kind of processing equipment would be needed to mass-produce the snacks, he says.
Once the students established how a farmer could produce the snacks from start to finish, they made some initial cost estimates, Davis says. He says that more work must be done to determine more precise figures, and he declines to disclose the students estimates.
Besides that work, the students identified other flavors that might attract consumers to the lentil snacks, including apple cinnamon and barbecue, Davis says. The groups involved in commercializing the lentils will need to develop appealing flavors and seek out a niche in the competitive snack-food industry, he says.
Theyll need to find a way to get the product into stores that already have their shelves full of snack items, he says. But, I think some people recognize that there are some smaller producers of specialty products in the Northwest.
Tang says the lentil council already has marketed the lentil snacks to companies in the U.S. and abroad, though they arent being mass-produced yet, and the products apparently are drawing interest. The lentil council is negotiating with a major snack-industry association on a plan to sell and distribute the high-protein lentil snacks, he says.
If an agreement is reached on that plan soon, the snacks would be available on the market in about a year, but if not, they still should be available in less than three years, Tang says. That time frame, however, depends on what marketing strategies the lentil council will use, he says.
Also, the lentil council might promote the lentil snacks as a good choice for a healthy school lunch program, he says.
More research must be done as the marketing efforts proceed, Tang says. The WSU team hasnt conducted a professional sensory taste test because the products are still in development, he says. The researchers likely will do those evaluations, which cost $3,000 to $5,000 per sample, in the near future, he says.
Tang says he thinks the extrusion process will be easy and economical for farmers to implement on an industrial scale, and will provide them a production process that doesnt waste any ingredients. He also thinks that the lentils are tasty enough to appeal to consumers, based on feedback from students, lentil-council representatives, and others.
Weve had a lot of interest, he says, but maybe people are just being polite.
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