Nonna’s Nopales gnocchi.

Cornell team hopes judges say ‘Yes!’ to Nonna’s Nopales gnocchi

Gnocchi, those pillowy Italian dumplings of potato and wheat flour, are having a moment. They are all over Instagram and enjoy cultish devotion among Trader Joe’s shoppers. But what if they could be made better, more sustainably and even more healthfully?

That was the working challenge of a Cornell product development team competing in the Institute of Food Technologists Student Association and MARS product development competition. The annual competition requires student teams to develop a new food idea and carry the concept through to marketing and production. This year’s team faces a certain amount of pressure: Since 1995, Cornell has won 11 IFTSA and Mars Wrigley Product Development Competitions, including a victory last year for its upcycled, innovative caffeinated coffee-banana sandwich bite.

Later this July, Cornell’s team, Nonna’s Nopales, travels to Chicago aiming for another win. One of six finalists for the prize, Nonna’s Nopales frozen meal kit is designed to satisfy Generation Z and Millennial consumers seeking nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals with stylish fusion flavors. The creamy, tomatillo-herb sauce paired with dumplings made from nopal cactus pads blends Mexican flavors into the classic Italian gnocchi dish.

“Nopal cactus is a crop we’re really excited about because it has such amazing sustainability factors,” said Cornell team co-captain Melanie Marshall ’24. “It can improve soils, it doesn’t need that much water and is very drought-tolerant. It doesn’t require a lot of fertilizers or inputs and its output is ginormous.”

But the product development was not without hitches. The chief problem, Marshall said, was slime.

“The raw cactus was crazy slimy and the flavor was super sour and really herbal,” she said. There were breakthroughs: They froze the fresh cactus paddles to puree them and achieve a better texture. Adding baking soda, a naturally alkaline substance, chemically acted with the cactus’s acid to improve taste. And a little garlic powder tipped the flavor in a more savory direction.

New product development is a delicate dance, explains Chris Loss, ’99, Ph.D. ’06 director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and adviser to the Cornell team. The omnivore’s paradox means humans have evolved to enjoy a diverse and complex diet, but neophobia, a fear of new things, suggests utterly novel foods are seldom immediately enjoyable.

“People seek new experiences, but if it’s something so new and unfamiliar, people will not like it,” he said. “This is an example of taking something unfamiliar to most consumers and putting it in a form that is familiar, like gnocchi.”

Marshall says this year’s Cornell teammates represented diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, but all felt urgency to eat more sustainably. In a hotter, drier, more unpredictable world, what new crops could be tapped as food staples?

“We had food science people and engineers, people in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Nolan School of Hotel Administration students. There were lots of ideas thrown out there for products. But the recurring theme that kept coming up was gnocchi – so random,” Marshall said.

Loss said it may not be entirely random: Some of what each year’s team must do is tap into current trends and the food zeitgeist, deftly navigating how to match that up with a target consumer segment.

In Chicago, at the 34th annual IFT First competition, the Cornell team will present its pitch through an oral presentation and a tasting session to an expert panel. Judges will evaluate the product’s overall effectiveness, including technical problem-solving, process feasibility and taste, ensuring the product’s commercial viability and appeal.

“This competition empowers student teams to operate like real-world commercial product development team,” said Christina Ginardi, director of academic engagement at IFT, which is a nonprofit scientific organization committed to advancing the science of food and its application across the global food system.

The winning team receives $3,000 ­– and bragging rights.

Rajni Aneja, managing director of the Cornell Institute for Food Systems Industry Partnership Program, says some of Cornell’s longstanding success at this competition is because, “there’s a culture around product development innovation at Cornell; first-year students get exposed to this concept the minute they walk in the door.”

Jun Li, who co-chaired this year’s team and is a food science and biological sciences double major, says the history of success may in fact beget more.

“With that history there’s added pressure, pressure to do the best we can. This year it led us to do something innovative and novel,” he said. “We are always hungry for the win.”

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Kaitlyn Serrao