Can We Eat What We Store?

Oscar Pike: Focusing on Food Storage

In provident families or populous countries, the challenges of food storage are the same: what should be stored, how long will it keep, and will it still be good to eat?

Professor Oscar PikeLeading an effort to better answer these questions is Oscar Pike, associate professor of food science at BYU.

Food science is the multidisciplinary study of food and the application of knowledge thus gained to the development of food products and processes, the preservation and storage of food, and the assurance of food safety and quality. At BYU, the food science faculty's goal is to promote self-reliance, reduce hunger, and improve the quality of life in targeted areas of the world by increasing the quality and quantity of food through improved preservation and storage.

"Raised on a family farm in Idaho, I saw food science as a natural extension of my agricultural background," said Pike. "How does food get from the farm to our dinner plate?" It's a good question, because in many parts of the world, food doesn't arrive at the dinner table with regularity.

Because most food quickly deteriorates, it has to be properly processed, packaged, and stored if it is to be available at the time and place where needed. For example, in the South Pacific, food such as breadfruit, taro, and cassava are plentiful but perishable. To ensure their availability during droughts or after hurricanes, these types of food must be preserved in some manner that is culturally acceptable. BYU is currently researching the use of a solar dryer to dehydrate such staples.

BYU food science is also researching the quality of dehydrated foods intended for long-term storage. "We are working with many different dried food products and have found wide variation in their quality," said Pike. "Quality is dependent on such factors as original product quality, processing parameters, and storage conditions like humidity, air, light, and temperature."

Dehydrated food quality quickly deteriorates if the bulk food is held at too high a temperature before it is packaged, or if the packaged food is stored in hot locations, such as an attic or garage. "I've drunk powdered milk stored for 20 years that tastes better than product stored improperly for less than one year," said Pike. Researchers have also found other problems, like foods that are labeled as having low or no oxygen that actually have quite a bit, and products that claim to be fortified with various vitamins but have been found to be lacking the quantities stated on the label. BYU researchers have suggested that such problems could be minimized if companies assured consumers of the quality of their product.

"There's a huge opportunity for companies to do well in the marketplace if they can get a handle on quality standards and have their products tested against those standards," said Pike. "Properly stored dehydrated food lasts a very long time. Our studies have confirmed that some foods store well for as long as 30 years."