I was contacted by a startup trying to develop a coconut-based dessert topping. They were celebrated for being clean-label and vegan—and so far people had been buying and enjoying their whipped topping.
But there was one huge problem…
The product was fermenting as it sat on the refrigerated shelf.
Turning into something like yogurt.
They offered a 90-day “best by” date, but spoilage was happening before 30 days. The whipped topping was unstable at refrigeration temperature.
When non-scientists analyze food tests
They’d put the product through a couple of shelf-life studies with different companies, trying to identify and solve the problem. But the product development team didn’t really understand what the reports were telling them.
The head of product development thought the studies confirmed a 60- to 90-day shelf life. But in reality the ingredients list, manufacturing processes, and shelf-life studies clearly showed a different picture from their optimistic assessment.
They just didn’t know what to look for.
Lactobacillus, a class of bacteria found in fermented foods, wasn’t largely present in the product at the beginning. But after 30 days in refrigerated storage, the bacteria count was high enough to consider the product essentially a coconut yogurt.
It’s very common and not dangerous —and lactobacillus tends to stifle the growth of other bad bacteria (which is one of the benefits of yogurt).
But not when you want sweet whipped topping. 🤢
This happened because any time you have a water-based mixture that isn’t pasteurized, it’s a potential breeding ground for bacteria that exist all around us.
And their particular recipe was a bacteria buffet, lacking a couple key elements that would reduce the “water activity” and let the product succeed on the refrigerated shelves.
In this case the concern wasn’t necessarily about pathogens, but rather how much the flavor degraded in a 30-day period. It went from sweet to sour and the package began bulging.
Ick. Not what you want on your Sunday pancakes.
Science beats wishful thinking
Fortunately there were a number of easy fixes to their problem—and one of them is incredibly simple:
Market the stuff in the freezer aisle. Right next to the ice cream and Cool Whip.
But they didn’t want to do that because they had a vision of their product in the fridge alongside the pasteurized dairy…
So I suggested some other simple formulation fixes that would slow the bacteria growth and get them closer to the 60-90 day shelf life they wanted.
How do you slow bacteria growth without preservatives?
Reduce the water activity!
- Add salt
- Add sugar
- Use less water per volume
Unfortunately by the time the company contacted me for help, their clean-food customer base was eroding and the brand’s reputation had already suffered major damage.
Had they brought on a food scientist earlier in the product development process—or had they been able to adjust their vision to fit the science—their brand story might have had a happier ending.
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