Reflections on Northern Lights on Food: "It’s clear that interest in this area is building, there’s a real push to understand food to make it better."

Photo: Emelie Hilner. Max IV.

Photo: Emelie Hilner. Max IV.

A radical transformation of the food system is needed to provide a healthy, sustainable and affordable diet for all people. Research and development into how food can become more nutritious, taste better, and use less resources, have a key role to play.

In March, MAX IV, LINXS and RISE organised a workshop to bring together x-ray and neutron researchers and the food industry. The aim was to identify common challenges and start new collaborations on how to develop and improve food and food processes.

More than 100 participants attended the event, including researchers from different institutes and universities, and industry representatives, ranging from smaller companies such as Kivik musteri, to larger ones such as Carlsberg and Tetra Pak.

– There was a fantastic range of people at the event who had no idea about x-rays and neutrons, and people who had no idea about food. Then we also had people who had some ideas of both. It’s clear that interest in this area is building, there’s a real push to understand food to make it better, maybe in light of challenges such as life style diseases, climate change, and a desire to create more sustainable societies, says Stephen Hall, Director of LINXS.

During the workshop, many questions were raised around food and food structure, both from industry and from researchers. They included how to develop more sustainable foods, produced in ways that use less energy and resources, how to preserve foods, the development of alternatives to meat protein, and how to tailor food and nutrition to individual needs and health, to name a few.

– The intersection of food with health, taste, environment and safety was definitely the most prevalent focus during the workshop, says Selma Maric, researcher at Max IV, and one of the main organisers of the workshop. For me, it was especially interesting to hear about how methods from the Far East, especially fermentation, can be used to preserve foods, or that we need to develop new methods of preparing jellyfish so it is more edible!

Another topic was processing, and how it impacts on food structure, health, and on waste, for example the food that gets stuck in the processing machines. Packaging was also discussed at length; how can you maximize food safety while minimizing waste and environmental impacts?

How do you make a cucumber crunchier?

As researchers, Stephen Hall and Selma Maric can identify many areas where x-rays and neutrons can be used to address challenges or to advance specific knowledge about foods, especially about the structure of food, and how it behaves on the molecule and atom level.

For example, imaging techniques can be used to study how the food is broken down in the gut, says Stephen Hall. One could build an artificial gut to study how food is digested on the macroscale. Then you can also look at how proteins and other substances break down, to see how the body is interacting with the gut.

Diffraction techniques, with which you can look at the atom structure, can be used to study sense and taste receptors. It enables you to find out more about how sensors in the mouth react with the molecules in the food. The power of neutron scattering techniques can also be used to visualize only the protein or only the fat. This could be a way to monitor various processes involved in changing protein structure, for example to improve taste.

– Umami receptors and sweet receptors in the mouth seem to work together and share a common subunit. Can the umami taste be enhanced with sugar or can we make food taste sweet by exploiting the umami flavor without it actually containing sugar? These techniques open a wealth of opportunities. Likewise, we could combine new techniques with old traditions to make cucumbers more crunchy, last longer and still taste as good as they do fresh, says Selma Maric.

Identify ways of working together

One of the outputs from the workshop is that MAX IV, LINXS, and RISE will write a white paper to summarise the findings from the discussions and presentations.

– Now we need to leverage the development and start thinking about how we can work together, says Selma Maric.

The collaboration between researchers and industry can take many forms, especially since there are differences between the companies in terms of expertise in using techniques, research and development capacities and resources.

– There are good examples from the forest and metal industries that we can look at. They work in large consortiums as a way to build capacity across the board. But there are many different ways people can gather, says Selma Maric.

From LINXS’ perspective, next step will focus on the potential to start a new working group on food and x-rays and neutron techniques, as well as on the need for competence building workshops and initiatives.

– One main starting point is language. How do we speak to each other? There is scope to have an introductory workshop on the techniques. The industry has the questions but do not understand the technology yet, says Stephen Hall. After that, we follow up with maybe a working group, and education.

– For LINXS, it’s all about creating a productive environment, working with people to develop new techniques, and to encourage new users of MAX IV and ESS, he concludes.

Voices from the Workshop

A range of different people attended Northern Lights on Food.

Dr. Judith Houston was one of the speakers at the workshop. She works with neutron scattering at ESS.

– To date, I have yet to actually directly study food, but it is an interesting area to explore. Can we look at the dynamics of food? What useful information can you get from using scattering techniques? Things to look at could be how things store, how emulsifiers behave so can you make food last, taste better?

If she would start doing research on food, she wants to study chili and how spicy foods react with receptors in the mouth.

– Is there a way to cure spiciness? What is the best natural ingredient? Maybe more people can get the goodness of chili if you could calm the spiciness?

Martin Adell from Tetra Pak was another speaker at the event.

– We want to use MAX IV and ESS to understand our processes better. We know a lot of them already: better quality, environmentally friendly, and safer.

For him, especially the material properties are important. How can you work with composites in the packaging such as plastics, foil, and printed cardboard? For companies it is important that their logos and other visual signifiers are visible on the packaging

– If we change the polymer layers in our packaging, how will it interact with the food? We need to know more about how food interacts with basic materials, so we can make our whole processing chain more sustainable, and above all, safe.

For me, personally, I would like to see a consortium being formed around food and the large infrastructures such as MAX IV and ESS. We need more focused efforts than only workshops or shorter initiatives.

Betül Yesiltas, post-doctoral researcher from the Technical University of Denmark and PhD student Mie Thorborg Pederson from University of Southern Denmark were two of the attendees at the workshop.

– I want to learn about applications in food in general, and in emulsions in particular. I’m working with emulsions in my research. We want to understand the oil/water interface; how we can work without disrupting the emulsion structure. Today, we do not know what makes the changes at the interface, says Betül Yesiltas.

– It is also interesting to find out more about MAX IV. How to get beam time for example.

Mie Thorborg Pederson has developed a method to preserve jellyfish to make it more palatable.

–I developed a technique involving soaking the jellyfish in alcohol and let the solvent evaporate to make the jellyfish crispy instead of gelatinous. I want to understand how the microscopic structure of jellyfish relate to the macroscopic mouth feeling, and therefore the talks are very interesting and relevant.  It is interesting to hear about new techniques such as neutron scattering and the applications in food science. I have to think about if the different techniques are relevant for my future experiments.

Stephen Hall, Director at LINXS presents at Northern Lights on Food.

Stephen Hall, Director at LINXS presents at Northern Lights on Food.

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