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Getting fizzy with it: Carbonated foods bubble up

Story Highlights

• Scientists and entrepreneurs are starting to use carbonation in foods
• Fizzy Fruit is a product comprised of carbon dioxide and fruit
• Some entrepreneurs say carbonation increases the appeal of fruit to kids
By Greg Botelho
CNN
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(CNN) -- Add a pinch of salt. Throw in a dash of pepper. Or -- if you really want to get your taste buds buzzing -- infuse your food with a fizz full of carbonation.

Carbonation is often associated with sugary soft drinks and "exploding" candies. Scientists and entrepreneurs are trying to clean up carbonation's image by using carbon dioxide to bring about a unique, invigorating and ideally nutritious eating experience.

What has become a growing fad in the food industry began by accident 13 years ago when Galen Kaufman, a neurobiologist, bit into a pear aboard his boat off Galveston, Texas. The pear had been locked overnight in a cooler of dry ice. "The dry ice had become carbon dioxide gas and soaked into the pears," said Kaufman. "I realized this was an opportunity, maybe even a responsibility, to share this with the world."

The world would have to wait. In 1999, Kauffman patented the fruit-carbonation concept and partnered with scientists at Oregon's Food Innovation Center. The team refined the process of infusing water inside fruit with carbon dioxide -- adding a flavor-enhancing fizz that leaves a tingle on the tongue.

They experimented with assorted foods, including apples, bananas, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes, with widely varying levels of success. "Carbonating foods end[s] up being a little tricky," said Kaufman. "It's one of those things where you really don't get it until you taste it. No sugar is added, [no] colors or acids. It's just fruit."

In 2005 Kaufman formed a company -- Fizzy Fruit -- and started small, selling carbonated grapes and apples. Today, its product can be found in 15 southwestern Wal-Marts, Bi-Low stores in four states, and 7-11 outlets across Texas. The company partnered with food distribution giant Sodexho to expand into Oregon's schools. And cafeteria workers in hundreds of schools nationwide fizz up their own fruits using patented carbonation machines, dubbed "Fizzilators."

"We can now see carbonation as a new spice," said Kauffman. "[Carbon dioxide] jump-starts your taste buds and makes the flavor stronger. ... You get all the benefits of fresh fruit, with a little more fun."

Other carbonated food ideas are percolating, from "sparkling yogurt" to tongue-tingling seasonings meant to jazz up vegetables. All use complex carbonation processes but few complex additives. Health experts welcome innovations that encourage children, in particular, to consume more fruits and vegetables. "Whatever gets kids to eat more fruits and veggies I'm for," said consultant, dietician and former USDA official Tracy Fox. "There are so many [unhealthy] things out there and such a great need."

Fizz business

Carbonation itself is nothing new. What has changed has been the effort to get carbon dioxide's sensory characteristics into new foods. "This is really a new frontier," said Qingyue Ling of Oregon's Food Innovation Center, which worked on Fizzy Fruit, adding that further study, refinement and caution are needed as such efforts continue.

Lynn Ogden, a food scientist and Brigham Young University professor, calls carbonation "an attractive option [to] use that pleasant sensation ... to accentuate flavors in some good things." His "sparkling yogurt" creation, its berry and citrus flavors infused with CO2 while maintaining yogurt's positive health properties, is to debut in stores this fall.

Wisconsin-based Raven Manufacturing is also trying to break into the market, entrapping carbon dioxide in barbecue, taco, chamoy -- a flavor popular in Mexico -- and other seasonings. While sugar, lactose, corn syrup, artificial colors and other additives may be included (as are vitamins), CEO Lynn Hesson hopes the spices could have a net-positive health effect, sprinkled on beans, corns and other vegetables.

Using some sizzle to get children to eat healthy is a common theme among carbonated food entrepreneurs. Targeting youth, as with Fizzy Fruit's partnership with Disney's "Meet the Robinsons" cartoon movie, is a "win-win situation," said Kaufman.

"We're not trying to [replace] regular fruit, but there are a lot of kids who get completely turned off by it," added Alex Espalin, Fizzy Fruit's chief marketing officer. "Kids love things that are tingly, and carbonation stimulates the taste buds."

Fox, the dietician, has never tried or studied Fizzy Fruit. But generally, she supports efforts that encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Such initiatives are best being launched in schools, said Fox, where children can learn healthy habits in a controlled environment.

"It's abysmal," she said, saying only 25 percent of U.S. children age 6 to 19 get two or more fruit servings daily. "They're not going to choose apples [over] M&Ms, but when you offer appealing, bite-size [fruits and vegetables], it works."

While no exhaustive studies have examined the health impact of carbonation specifically, those touting such products said they suspect no ill effects, because carbon dioxide does not alter the food's nutritional makeup and already is part of a human's metabolism.

"Our bodies are good eliminators of CO2 ... through our respiratory system," said Ogden. "The amount of carbonation we consume, we eliminate in a matter of minutes."

At the least, Kauffman said, carbonated food's rise, especially when it furthers good health, is testament to outside-the-box thinking key to devising new products and tackling entrenched problems like childhood obesity.

"One of the most important things about Fizzy Fruit is that it automatically forces people to think about what is possible," he said. "You never know what will be right in front of you."


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Fizzy Fruit

Carbon dioxide -- and nothing else -- is added to Fizzy Fruit, now available in Wal-Marts across the Southeast.

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