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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Charan Wadhawan’s lifelong interest in food started as a young girl in Punjab, India; her mother used turmeric to soothe a bruise and wild celery seed to calm a stomachache. Today the AURI food scientist is an expert in nutraceuticals – food ingredients with medicinal benefits used in “functional” foods.
Wadhawan says she chose food science as her career because, “I always was interested in coming up with quick and easy recipes at home. … Nutritional value was my thing.”
She learned it from her mother. “If I had a bruise and there was swelling, my Mom would make poultice – made of flour with a lot of turmeric and some oil, cook it with a little water, then put it in a cheesecloth and hold it tight over the bruise. It did work; it helped with the swelling and the wound would heal.
“When we had stomach aches, we would take ajawain (wild celery seed), mix it with a little salt and swallow it with water. People still do that — it’s a common remedy.”
What do you do?
She has helped entrepreneurs design specialized products such as Women’s Bread with soy isoflavones, and gluten-free baked goods for people with Celiac disease — along with a wide variety of other products.
“You name it; I’ve done it — and not just cereal products,” says Wadhawan whose product development accomplishments include sunflower butter, barbecue sauces, frozen entrees, salsas and hot wing sauce, along with baked goods and mixes. (see sidebar next page)
Wadhawan has been AURI’s lead food scientist since 1990, helping small businesses with food-product development and commercialization and managing AURI’s food lab in Crookston.
“How I work is I bring the client into my lab and guide them through (the food commercialization process) so they know how to do it. Then they can call me and ask a variety of questions and do the development themselves,” Wadhawan says. If necessary, she works with the clients at their home or business site. “If there is any problem with the product, I do the trouble shooting for them.”
What did you study?
Wadhawan received her master’s degree in food science from Punjab Agricultural University in 1975. She moved to Calgary in Alberta, Canada to help her brother standardize recipes for his Indian restaurant, Taj Mahal, which is still open and family owned. After a year, she was offered a cereal chemist position at the Canadian International Grains Institute in Winnipeg.
There were some cultural differences she had to adapt to. “People are very hospitable in India,” Wadhawan says. When she brought her lunch into the student lounge at Punjab, “Either we would ask other people if they would like to share what we were eating, or we would wait for others to start eating before we did.
“When I started working in Winnipeg, I noticed people would bring their snacks and lunch and just start eating,” without acknowledging anyone else in the room. “It felt strange at the time — now I do that too,” she laughs.
She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba and worked for a short time at ConAgra before hearing about the AURI cereal position, which she accepted in November 1990.
Can you describe some of the products that you helped develop?
Reflecting on 17 years with AURI, Wadhawan says the most “interesting” product she helped develop was Men’s Bread, with nutraceutical ingredients such as ginseng and soy protein, designed to improve men’s health. She helped French Meadow Bakery owner Lynn Gordon develop the recipe, along with several other high-protein, low-glycemic breads.
“I would formulate the recipe, then hand it to her and she would try it. … If I was in the area, we would evaluate the product together — and do the taste test. Between Lynn and I, we would decide what to do next — whether to change the formula or keep it.”
Wadhawan is referred to clients by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Small Business Development Centers and other agencies — but most referrals come by word of mouth.
“I get all kinds of clients — those who are extremely thankful” to some who “think it’s their right that they should get this service — that’s what the government’s job is.”
At the Crookston food lab, she does nutritional analysis with a software system and basic testing, such as moisture, ash, pH and sensory analysis. Her colleague, AURI scientist Ed Wene, does microbiology analysis “when we’re doing shelf-life studies.” And fat and oils analysis is done at AURI’s lab in Marshall.
How does your work help the industry?
Half of the small businesses Wadhawan has helped are still in business — well above the national average of 20 percent surviving the first five years. But a number have failed. “Unless you have some distinct advantage over other products in the market, you are not going to make it,” Wadhawan says.
Most often, businesses successfully marketing a new product already have market experience. “They may be in local stores already or they are selling on the Internet and want to add more lines.
“Some people make money in different ways … like selling at the State Fair. I know some people making tons of money in two weeks.” Others succeed at marketing unique attributes such as handmade or hand-packaged or distinct flavors. Co-packing for others can also build profit.
Sometimes Wadhawan advises a business to nix an idea. Recently a man asked Wadhawan for advice on commercializing Mexican foods. “We talked about how many products he wanted to do. I said, ‘You need a business plan and some money upfront.’ He said, ‘Why would they want money from me? I’m giving them the idea.’ He thought a co-packer would buy his ideas.”
So she gave him co-packers names and he called back to say he was dropping the idea. “Some people live in a dream-world,” Wadhawan says.
“Big companies have the advantage — price is the main one. Companies are going to provide what their customer wants; you can see more and more organic products coming. There are so many beverages with health advantages and all these big companies are working on that. It becomes really hard for small businesses to compete. Somehow their product needs to be better than competitors and not easily replicated.”
For example, Kari Lee baking mixes in St. Louis Park “are very successful. They grew up gradually, getting their product co-packed. Now they’re doing very well with products in William Sonoma and they are trying to get into Target and other specialty stores.”
Entrepreneurs’ success “depends on what their goal is. Some are happy to do just enough for themselves, maybe a husband and wife team. If there are 10 couples who are making money and keeping their jobs, that keeps them out of the market competing with other people looking for jobs,” Wadhawan says.
“It keeps them busy and they make enough to be satisfied with that.”