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Friday, Jan. 4, 2008
A delicious mix of technology and sweets
Break it open, and what looks like a plain strawberry is filled with chocolate
Futuristic technology has come to sweets.
No, cheesecake won't start walking and doughnuts won't be assembling your new Toyota Prius, but sweets produced by venture firm FCOM (Fresh Functional Food Composite) Co. are packed, or better yet, "infused" with technology.
"Our business was started based on the idea of creating new types of composite food by infusing one food into another," said Norimitsu Kameshima, vice president of Tokyo-based FCOM.
The concept is similar to that of soaking one food with something, a technique as old as the hills.
But because preserving the quality of the original food is essential, what can be done with a regular soaking technique is limited, Kameshima said.
With infusion technology, "we found that we could do a variety of things that the existing technology couldn't," he said.
Take for example one of FCOM's products, a strawberry infused with white chocolate. On the outside it's an everyday garden-variety dried strawberry, but break the surface and it looks like the fruit contains white chocolate in its fibers.
The trick is to first freeze-dry the strawberry to remove the water, and then infuse the white chocolate into the spaces left behind.
Infusion technology was derived from industrial manufacturing. Placeram Co., which is run by the father of FCOM's president, has been using this technology for various industrial needs.
For example, bearings in bullet train undercarriages appear to be solid metal, but they are manufactured with many micro gaps. Kameshima said shinkansen bearings spin so fast they can cause static electricity that may disrupt various control systems. By infusing the gaps with substances that have a high degree of insulation, static buildup is prevented.
Bringing this concept to food started with a suggestion to make fatty tuna by infusing tuna oil into regular tuna. After some research, people at Placeram succeeded but then thought "rather than make something that's already out there, let's create something new," which eventually led to establishing FCOM in 2003, Kameshima said.
They kept exploring the possibilities, eventually creating apples infused with red wine. Put on display at the FABEX food exhibition in 2004 in Tokyo, they attracted much attention because of the idea's originality.
What surprised many was that the wine was infused all the way to the core, but the apple's texture remained unchanged.
"It was unexpected that we would get that much attention," said Kameshima, who added that due to the positive reaction, "we became more serious about this business (making composite food)."
Kameshima said the company learned that fresh or raw foods are hard to handle because the texture of the composite food can change in just a few days, and keeping the food in top condition over a long time is difficult.
The best route appeared to be infusing chocolate into dried food, which can maintain its texture over a long time. Plus, the taste doesn't change for a long time, Kameshima said.
The concept's originality has attracted much attention from the food industry as well as the media, but the business end has faced many twists and turns.
Part of the headache was figuring out ways to promote a brand-new product.
"What we created didn't exist in the past, so we had to create a new market," Kameshima said.
"For instance, it's really hard to explain (the system of chocolate-infused fruit) on the package. Consumers won't buy into something unless they know what it is."
As a result, FCOM wasn't sure how to sell the concept to possible partners.
Learning some lessons, Kameshima said the company has gotten better at the promotion game and has now figured out where it should be headed. He said they have also been working on possible business offers from overseas.
FCOM also hopes to take the technology further.
For instance, it has created currants infused with chocolate and the vitaminlike substance coenzyme Q10 to make it easier for people to take the supplement.
"Our concept is that people can take supplements easily and deliciously," said Kameshima, adding the concept and technology could be adapted for fields like cosmetics and medicine.
He said food such as rice infused with various nutrients could be produced for seniors who can't eat very much. This way, they could maintain the necessary nutritional balance without having to alter their eating habits.
"We think that with this infusion technology, we have to create something beyond just chocolate sweets, because people will say, 'what's so different from chocolate-coated snacks?' " Kameshima said.
An important goal is to infuse something surprising and functional, he said.