Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: If your packaged food still tastes good, thank Ken Swartzel

CorrespondentAugust 10, 2013 

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Kenneth Swartzel, a food scientist at NC State University, is seen in one of the labs in the Schaub Food Science Building on the NCSU campus.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Kenneth Ray Swartzel

    Born: Sept. 20, 1949

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus, N.C. State University

    Awards: Nicholas Appert Award, Institute of Food Technologists, 2013; Order of the Long Leaf Pine, 2013; Innovator of the Year, N.C. State University, 2011; Holladay Medal, N.C. State, 2006; involved in work that earned three Institute of Food Technologists Industrial Achievement Awards for NCSU

    Education: B.S. and M.A. in food science, Ph.D. in biological and agricultural engineering, all from N.C. State

    Family: Wife, Peggy; daughter, Katie; sons, Paul and Gray; one grandchild

    Fun Fact: Swartzel says he recently crossed one item off of his very short “bucket list” – attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He says he has 23 years of the parade on video.

— Ken Swartzel’s eyes wouldn’t let him follow his dream of being an astronaut.

Instead, he spent his career exploring a different kind of frontier – charting new ways to capture and preserve the tastes and textures of foods for long periods of time.

As a professor in N.C. State University’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, Swartzel has spent more than 30 years figuring out better ways to get food to people’s tables, pioneering methods of preserving foods in flexible packages that are more efficient and creating healthier, better-tasting products.

“When you open up that package and the aroma fills the room and the color is beautiful and bright,” he says, “that’s what we’ve been trying to do, is unlock those doors.”

Swartzel, 63, led the food science department for 11 years and developed two research centers that work closely with industry and government to get food science innovations into the marketplace. His work has resulted in dozens of patents and has spawned six companies statewide.

His innovations, and his mentoring of a generation of food scientists, have earned him a place at the top of his field. Last month, the Institute of Food Technologists gave Swartzel its highest award for lifetime achievement.

Josip Simunovic, an NCSU food science professor, says Swartzel saw early in his career the benefit of flexible packaging over canned foods and pursued it. The new packages save energy and retain more nutrients than cans.

And Simunovic says Swartzel’s impact continues to widen as his innovations are refined and adopted and as his former students contribute to the industry.

“His legacy is spreading throughout the industry,” says Simunovic, who studied under Swartzel at NCSU. “The methods he developed early on and continued to optimize and perfect over the years are now where the industry is going.”

It’s the kind of work that touches nearly everyone’s plate at some point. Yet few are aware of the effort that goes into packaging food – a fact Swartzel embraces.

“You’re not supposed to think about it,” Swartzel says. “It’s just supposed to taste good and be safe.”

From Air Force to food

Swartzel grew up in Winston-Salem. He met his wife of more than 40 years while working for the summer at the textile mill where both of their fathers worked full time.

Growing up in the 1950s, he dreamed of space travel. His plan was to learn to fly in the U.S. Air Force and move on to the space program.

But early tests found that he lacked the depth perception needed to safely land a plane, and he failed the Air Force physical.

So he switched gears from aerospace engineering to food engineering, a quiet field that was low on glamour but high on employer demand. He came to N.C. State in 1968 and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees there, working in the food industry in between.

His work came to focus on “continuous high-speed thermal processing,” systems that run foods through a series of heating and cooling elements to preserve them rather than heating them in cans. This method allows foods to be processed as little as possible while killing dangerous bacteria.

Ironically, this specialty landed him in many of the same classes with aerospace engineers; his Ph.D. includes a minor in that field.

“It’s all about airflow,” he says. “I’m still flying, only I’m mentally flying particles through a pipeline.”

Swartzel soon saw the benefits of what is called aseptic processing, which allows food to be stored in flexible packaging, often at room temperature.

These methods save energy in packaging and storing food and are now widely used to preserve fruit and vegetable purees, milk that can be stored at room temperature, and other products.

They are particularly useful for institutions such as hospitals and the military, but they are increasingly seen on grocery store shelves as well.

‘It makes you tingle’

A recent example of his work was a technology that a group of sweet potato farmers used to open a plant in Snow Hill.

The plant converts the small and misshaped potatoes, which once would have been discarded, into a puree that is sold for use in baby food and baked goods.

Swartzel recalls opening a 3-month-old bag of the puree made at the plant in the NCSU lab for a group of farmers at an industry meeting.

“That sweet potato aroma filled the room,” he says. “It makes you tingle it just feels so good.”

Recently he has helped devise standards that will guide the technology’s use on foods that have pieces of different sizes – chunky soups, for instance – a complication that has baffled the food industry for years.

Applying the research

Swartzel has also put his experience in the private sector to use in his work at the university.

He helped found and direct an executive program for food industry leaders across the country, and he directed a UNC system initiative meant to help move technologies from the classroom to the marketplace.

Throughout his career, Swartzel says he has always pushed his students to pursue research projects that have immediate impacts.

“What we should be doing is independent, publishable research,” he says. “But I add one more requirement, to do something that within a reasonable amount of time will do something for the rest of us, to increase quality of life.”

His patents have generated millions of dollars for N.C. State and helped build businesses that benefit the state.

But creating technologies for immediate use does have drawbacks: Swartzel has spent countless hours embroiled in lawsuits over his various patents.

And there’s no guarantee of keeping the benefits of his work in his home state. The company that funded one of his earliest and most significant patents, which led to liquid eggs with long shelf lives that are now ubiquitous in restaurants, moved its plant to another state.

Over the years, Swartzel says he has resisted leaving academia for the private sector. He is now in a phased retirement that will allow him to continue working part time for a few more years – a move he made after a close friend died suddenly.

But his work will surely live on. Simunovic recalls a recent industry meeting at which nearly every person present had worked with Swartzel.

“He brought us all around the table, and his work continues to build and grow,” Simunovic says.

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