World first collaboration to unravel food structure

Australian scientists and manufacturers have joined forces in a collaboration that utilises state of the art technology and materials science to determine the molecular structure of the protein components in some of our most common foods.

Aiming to help food manufacturers understand the links between the nanostructure of protein-containing foods and their associated physical and biochemical properties, the research will enable them to predict and control the behaviour of raw materials and ingredients during food processing.

The partnership brings together the unique food and materials science capabilities and expertise of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the CSIRO’s Food Futures National Research Flagship, and The University of Queensland’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences.

An unprecedented number of leading food companies have already recognised the importance of this world leading research into protein structure and joined up as commercial partners. Current members include Fonterra Dairy Co-operative, George Weston Foods, Meat & Livestock Australia, Manildra Group, and Dairy Innovation Australia. The consortium still has room for additional partners to join this two year research project.

Dubbed the ‘Protein Syndicate’, this consortium of research organisations and industry partners has already commenced research projects that will provide Australian scientists and food manufacturers with the ability to design consumer-friendly foods with improved taste, texture and nutritional qualities.

CSIRO’s Food Futures National Research Flagship research team leader, Dr Ingrid Appelqvist, has said that this unique syndicate will conduct cutting-edge research to determine the behaviour of a range of food proteins and predict their response to formulation variables likely to be found in food manufacturing processes and products.

At the forefront of research

According to Dr Appelqvist, the biggest benefits for manufacturers taking part in the consortium include the huge scope of the research programme. “Particularly for small to medium-sized enterprises, who wouldn’t be able to have access to this volume of funds, being part of a $1.5 million research programme by paying a small fee, is a great opportunity. Having the option of being able to help steer the project, is extremely beneficial. One of the things that we are doing is allowing manufacturers, and in fact asking them, to use some of their own ingredients and work with the particular proteins that they’re interested in.

“The research is very much specific to them. Although it’s still pre-competitive research, it allows the participants to get some understanding of their own kinds of ingredients – as long as they don’t mind sharing it with the partners.”

The collaboration also allows manufacturers to actually see the scientists doing the research work. “We talk to them, formally, at least three times a year, but they can call us any time and often we can help them with problem solving, and act as consultants for something else that they might have – even if it’s not associated with the Protein Syndicate,” said Dr Appelqvist. “Once they put faces to names it becomes much easier to interact with us and get the kind of support that they need in a more timely way.

Manufacturers get the research results much more quickly than they would otherwise, and continually have interactions with the scientists, so that as the research progresses they continue to have input on the focus and the overall direction taken.

Taking part in the Syndicate also allows manufacturers to work with the CSIRO on specific problems, that either leverage from this research program, or that are completely outside of it. “What it gives them is an opportunity to see us at work, and to build up the relationship, before they make decisions on spending more money on addressing their specific problems,” explained Dr Appelqvist.

Controlling proteins

“Manufacturers need to really understand how to control their protein powders or ingredients in a predictive way. Much of the work, or rework that’s done, and much of the downtime in factories, is due to the fact that they’ve put ingredients together and haven’t understood how they should interact or what might happen,” said Dr Appelqvist.

“They can end up with having blocked pipes, which means a lot of down time, a lot of cleaning, and starting all over again. Being able to be predictive about the function and the behaviour of ingredients will prevent this from happening.”

The research will also aim to allow manufacturers to get the maximum functionality out of their ingredients.

“As a practical example, when you want to dissolve something, often a white powder doesn’t disperse very well, and you end up getting bits still left floating around. These clumps are very costly because the manufacturer ends up putting in expensive ingredients and not getting the functionality out of that particular part.

“What this work will allow them to do is to get complete solubility in order to reduce the amount of ingredients they’re using. What the food industry often has done to overcome the fact that they don’t get full functionality, is to just add more of the ingredient, or others ingredients, to try and compensate for the problem. That is very, very expensive and, with a solution, costs could be significantly reduced.”

The research would also allow for increased inter-changeability. By understanding the functionality of a particular protein, the manufacturer could use another, cheaper, protein to replace it – thereby controlling input costs in the process.

While work has been done on proteins in the past, very little has been done on the highly concentrated protein form. An example of the applications of the research is understanding how high levels of protein function in snack bars.

“We know that while the bars can be quite nutritious, many simply don’t taste very good,” explained Dr Appelqvist. “The fact is they harden on storage – so something happens during that storage process, either in the kitchen or in the shops. This project tries to address those sorts of problems and issues as well.

“While we are concentrating on proteins, a lot of the foods that we eat have mixtures of other ingredients, like fats and carbohydrates and starch, and these ingredients interact with each other. Some of them form what we call a synergy, so they enhance each other’s functionality, but sometimes they reduce each other’s functionality.

“This is really something that the manufacturers need to consider when they’re applying the technology on the understanding that we provide for them. However, by giving them the principles they should be able to be predictive and perhaps overcome some of these other considerations. It’s important though to understand their process, and how it impacts on the protein, and to take care that the other ingredients don’t interfere with the proteins.”

The aims for the future of the technology, in terms of application, is to allow for foods that currently can’t be created due to technical obstacles, to become a realistic possibility in three to four years time. “Manufacturers will be able to use this technology to produce different foods that will perhaps be much more convenient than they are currently, as well as much more nutritious.

“Over the next two years we’ll be investigating the molecular structure and functionality of a variety of food proteins with sources ranging from grains to dairy, meat and legumes,” Dr Appelqvist explained. “Our ultimate goal is to design highly nutritional new ingredients that can be dried and rehydrated without reducing their quality and functionality. There are a whole range of potential advantages to come from this research,” she said.

All together now

The project is a first for Australia. Putting together a Syndicate where companies that would normally be in competition with each other, or competing for the same market, work together is a unique situation. For Dr Appelqvist this is an indication that the manufacturers understand the importance of the project.

“We did this in Europe many years ago and, as a model, it worked very well. The different companies found that they got a lot from it and the impact was not only immediate, but also continued for a long time afterwards.”

Although the project aims to publish the research work, the companies that take part are able to get access to the findings long before they are actually available to the public in journals.

“This concept is fairly new to Australia,” said Dr Appelqvist. “It’s not a way that Australian companies have really worked before – especially in the food industry. It is a form that Europe is beginning to move to, and it’s primarily to help the smaller companies to have access to large R&D programmes, because obviously they can’t put in hundreds of thousands of dollars into doing research. This approach is a very good way of getting these small companies in, and has worked well.

“We’ve morphed this Syndicate to make it much more Aussie, and to fit with the Australian way of doing things. We feel that the outcomes will certainly be substantial for these participating companies.”

Maya Gorelik is a freelance journalist for FOOD Magazine.

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