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Improving food on the molecular scale

LOUVAIN, Belgium – Making the lightest, most delicious birthday cake used to be a feat executed only by Grandma. Now, scientists are replacing culinary intuition with imaging techniques to improve the quality of food.

An EU-funded project called InsideFood aims to understand food’s physical qualities through microstructure measurement. The project focuses on understanding the spatial distribution of food components, on detecting foreign material in food, and on texture. Researchers have developed instruments and software for inspecting food microstructure that can be implemented in food processing plants.

The researchers use scanners and optical techniques often used in biomedicine to investigate the food’s structure. OCT, time- and space-resolved spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance relaxometry and acoustic emission are just a few of the technologies addressed in the project. The information gained from testing allowed the scientists to build mathematical models that describe how microstructures change under the influence of process situations.

“Our final technical target is to design and optimize a food product [by computer],” said Bart Nicolai, professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Louvain. “A later step can be the production of foods by 3-D printing.”

Sugar- and gluten-free products, raised to prominence as a result of diabetes, celiac disease and other health issues, were the focus of special attention. “Texture largely depends on microstructure,” Nicolai said. “Sugar and gluten are very important in the texture of bakery products. The challenge is to create new sugar- and gluten-free foods with the same texture.”

Food structure research on this level is not new. However, the application of these specific photonic technologies to food imaging and mathematical processes is a new venture.

“When we started, knowledge about 3-D visualization of food microstructure [hardly existed],” Nicolai said. “Mathematical models describing important physical processes were hardly available. We did a lot to fill this gap.”

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