Synchrotron plays key role in food sector research

The Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne is playing a critical role in research breakthroughs that benefit the food sector including biofortification of foods, assessing the effectiveness of food processing, and determining the nutritional impact of foods. Hartley Henderson writes.

This world-class facility uses accelerator technology to produce a powerful source of light (X-rays and infrared radiation) a million times brighter than the sun. The intense light produced is filtered and adjusted to travel into experimental work stations where the light beams reveal the innermost sub-microscopic secrets of materials under investigation.

Dr David Cookson at the Australian Synchrotron explains that basic ingredients in food are highly complex in nature – a ‘mish-mash’ of different proteins, starches, and fats, mixed together in a highly complex way.

“The Australian Synchrotron’s unique capacities and capabilities allow Australian researchers from across academia and industry to unravel these complexities by investigating materials at a molecular level to facilitate processing and production improvements. Longer-lasting products can be created, a better understanding of quality control can be generated, and certain nutritional characteristics can be boosted or reduced,” he told Food & Beverage Industry News.

“The reason the Australian Synchrotron is so important to any of these improvements is it provides highly accurate, objective data on any material modification, using the powerful X-ray beam to produce visualisations of unprecedented detail.

“For example, there is great opportunity in synchrotron food research related to dairy products. A team from CSIRO Food and Nutrition has used the Australian Synchrotron to examine the structure of casein micelles, which play a significant role in the ideal consistency and stabilisation of milk-based products.

“Understanding the nanostructure of micelles through the Small and Wide Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS/WAXS) beamline provided new understanding of how the size and number of micelles within a component of cow’s milk can affect how efficiently the milk is processed into products such as powdered milk and hard cheese.”

Rice projects

In a rice project currently underway, plant biologists have used gene technology to increase the amount of iron and zinc transported into the endosperm, the part of the rice grain that most people eat.

The Australian Synchrotron’s X-ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline was used to produce ‘metal maps’ that accurately track the diffusion of key nutrients such as iron and zinc at sub-micron resolution levels without damaging the rice grain’s internal structure.


Dr Alex Johnson from the University of Melbourne’s School of BioSciences, who is the Australian lead of the project, says that white rice is very low in iron and that some 2 billion people suffer from iron and zinc deficiency.“The aim of the project, which is in part funded by HarvestPlus, is to develop a biofortified rice that is high in iron and zinc, demonstrating that by manipulating rice plant genes, rice plants can translocate more iron and zinc to the endosperm,” he said.

“When rice is milled it loses the outer layers of the grain where much of iron and zinc is located, but the powerful synchrotron was able to show that the nutrients were translocated deeper in the part of the grain that is not affected by milling.

“The biofortified rice that we developed in the project has now been successfully tested in the Philippines and Columbia under highly controlled conditions. HarvestPlus is now seeking funding to further develop and de-regulate this transgenic rice for sale to farmers, possibly in Bangladesh, and possibly in five years from now if these research activities go well.

“Most staple crop foods have low iron content, so there are significant opportunities to further utilise the synchrotron to show the extent and location of nutrients in additional grain crops such as wheat.”

Director of HarvestPlus, Dr Howarth Bouis, recently won the World Food Prize for his team’s pioneering work in addressing the global problem of micronutrient deficiencies, known as hidden hunger, through biofortification.

He says malnutrition amongst poor people is a serious public health problem because they can afford to eat the basic food staples but do not have enough income to buy non-staple foods which have higher levels of minerals and vitamins. As a result, many suffer from inadequate intakes which cause serious health problems.

“It is cost-effective to breed nutrients into staple crops to address mineral and vitamin deficiencies. With respect to iron in rice, we were unsuccessful in using conventional breeding techniques, but we have been able to do this by using a transgenic approach to increase the iron in rice, with the bonus of also increasing the zinc content,” he told Food & Beverage Industry News.

“We have already released over 150 conventionally-bred varieties across twelve biofortified crops in 30 countries, and are testing these varieties in an additional 25 countries around the world. We are hopeful that as many as 1 billion people will benefit from biofortified foods by 2030. High iron and zinc transgenic rice eventually could contribute significantly to this ambitious goal.”

In another rice project, researchers from the NSW Department of Primary Industries have used the Australian Synchrotron to compare parboiling techniques, showing that longer parboiling processes at higher temperatures cause more micronutrients to migrate from the outer bran layer into the starchy core of the grain.

Dr Laura Pallas, Rice Chemist at the NSW DPI, says changing global rice processing and eating habits is an enormous task. “There are deeply entrenched expectations across various cultures around desired texture consistency and flavour, including different approaches to parboiling and cooking,” she said.

“Advances in this area are important because rice is the closest thing we have to a global dish and it is gluten free and a good source of complex carbohydrates.”

Meat quality

The quality of meat, such as tenderness and intramuscular fat in lamb, is currently graded by mechanical and chemical tests, but obtaining that information in a more timely way in the abattoir has eluded the meat processing sector.

Therefore, the Australian Synchrotron has been involved in a research project to provide information on meat quality aspects such as tenderness and intramuscular fat content.

The project was led by the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Agriculture Victoria Division (Dr Eric Ponnampalam), in collaboration with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (Dr David Hopkins), the University of Melbourne (Prof Frank Dunshea) and the Australian Synchrotron (Dr Nigel Kirby).

Drs Ponnampalam and Hopkins say the research is exploring new approaches to measuring meat quality that may have applicability within the processing sector, thereby providing rapid information on the suitability of meat to different sectors of the supply chain.

“The Synchrotron’s Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) beamline technology was used to investigate differences in muscle fibre and/or fat, which can influence the eating quality of meat,” they said.

“The project results demonstrate that these technologies could be powerful research tools in the future to determine not only the structural components of muscle, but also the composition of muscle relating to eating quality traits of meat.

“In addition, the synchrotron SAXS beamline technology presents a promising opportunity to determine carcase toughness or tenderness and relative fat content and could be a useful experimental tool, overcoming the need for destructive sampling techniques.” They said the method requires significant further development to be utilised in the processing sector.


Australian Synchrotron

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