KANNAPOLIS, NC — For an eager culinary arts student, the challenge was intriguing: Find a palatable culinary use for watermelon concentrate. Samuel Jijon (Sammy), a senior at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, joined the lab of Dr. Penelope Perkins-Veazie as an intern this fall. He not only embraced the task of product development, he also learned about important nutrition and food science considerations commonly evaluated in Perkins-Veazie’s postharvest physiology lab at N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus. By November he had a pretty solid prototype of a watermelon-mango fruit leather. In fact, he had two flavors: original and cayenne. While it’s not ready to hit the market just yet, Jijon and Perkins-Veazie are pleased with the progress and considering what the next steps might be.
Limitations of watermelon beyond fresh
Perkins-Veazie has been working with watermelon as a
postharvest physiologist for more than 15 years. While watermelon is a sweet, fresh summertime treat, there are very few processed food products that can put the health benefits of watermelon on the grocery shelf in the off-season. Though many fruits can easily be juiced, canned or frozen, watermelon doesn’t hold up well to these processing options usually due to taste or texture deterioration. Watermelon is a member of the squash family and when heated the flavor profile of the squash comes to the forefront and the sweetness and watermelon aroma that consumers expect is lost.
Like most fruits and vegetables, watermelon tout’s significant health benefits. Research at the Plants for Human Health Institute often focuses on plant compounds called phytonutrients. These compounds, though not essential for survival like vitamins and minerals, provide tremendous health benefit and contribute to disease prevention. In watermelon, the phytonutrients of interest to Perkins-Veazie and Jijon were lycopene, citrullene and beta-carotene. The Perkins-Veazie lab often evaluates fruits and vegetables for a change (decrease or increase) in phytonutrient content after a crop is harvested, after a period of storage, or after a processing treatment.
Perkins-Veazie’s interest in a culinary product for watermelon concentrate is two-fold. First, a viable processed watermelon product would put more food products on the shelf offering the health benefits of lycopene, citrullene and beta-carotene. Second, the ability to process watermelons may provide an economic boost to watermelon farmers through additional market outlets. Currently watermelon production accounts for $21.4 million of North Carolina’s agricultural revenue, almost exclusively through fresh product sales.
Making a culinary connection
Perkins-Veazie has found a successful technique to turn an entire ripe watermelon into about 60 milliliters (1/4 cup) of highly concentrated watermelon juice. While the aroma is maintained, the flavor is not. “However,” Perkins-Veazie explains, “while the phytonutrient content and health benefits are still present, it is only valuable if someone can develop a desirable food product or food ingredient.” It seemed like a good fit when Kannapolis City School’s Career and Technical Education coordinator, Chef Mallory Harris approached Perkins-Veazie in search of an internship opportunity for a culinary arts student at the high school only a half-mile from the Research Campus.
Knowing that Jijon immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was only one-year old, Perkins-Veazie encouraged him to explore the diversity of tropica
l fruits from his culinary heritage that may not be common in the United States. He set about trialing different fruit combinations trying to mask the watermelon-squash flavor without losing the phytonutrients. From his culinary training, he also recognized a need for lemon juice to add acidity to the flavor profile and as a food safety consideration.
Ultimately the winning combination was watermelon, mango and guava. Guava, a major fruit crop in Mexico, not only masked the watermelon flavor, but added a pleasing texture to the fruit leather. Perkins-Veazie advised Jijon to steer away from added sugar or salt, to keep the product as natural and as healthy as possible; but once he had the basic recipe to his satisfaction, he thought it would be fun to spice it up a bit. “I started with a gram of cayenne powder, and I thought it had a good kick to it, but Dr. P couldn’t handle it. She has a low heat tolerance, it seems.” Jijon dialed it back a bit and they found an amount that was acceptable to both their palates.
From the lab to the kitchen
In addition to recipe creation, Jijon has had the opportunity to assist with routine lab work. He says “Working in the lab was a great experience, but the repetition of data collection wasn’t all that exciting.” In an effort to help Jijon grow and learn as much as he could in the final weeks of his internship, rather than assign more lab work, Perkins-Veazie reached out to Chef Mark Allison at the Dole Nutrition Institute, also located at the NCRC to see if he would be willing to mentor Jijon a couple hours a week. As he keeps a watchful eye on Jijon’s prepwork, Allison says, “It’s been great having an additional set of capable hands to assist with recipe preparations. Sammy has a bright future ahead of him.”
Sammy hopes that his future includes attending Johnson & Wales University (JWU), Charlotte, a school that Allison is quite familiar with, as a former dean of the College of Culinary Arts at JWU. In their brief time together, with insight from Allison about the career paths at JWU, Jijon has shifted his degree interest from culinary arts and food service management to culinary nutrition. A career in the culinary nutrition field may involve managing the nutritional composition of meals for individuals with specific dietary requirements. Not only will he be trained as a chef, he will have the foundational knowledge to make nutritious food taste great. His experiences with Dr. Perkins-Veazie and Chef Allison have provided an experience that Jijon can directly build upon as he follows his dream.