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Can x-rays and neutrons solve food-related challenges?

Research collaboration involving experts in food science and experts in advanced neutron and x-ray science shall provide new analytical approaches to study the food-related challenges. The aim is to gain more knowledge on processes affecting quality and safety of food products.

Can x-rays and neutrons solve challenges related to the quality and safety of food products?

This is what the research theme, called ‘Northern Lights on Food’ at LINXS - Lund institute of advanced neutron and x-ray science, will try to find out. The theme aims to impact the development of neutron and x-ray techniques and instruments - and to create data analysis methods to fit food-specific research questions, making it possible to begin to educate a new generation of food scientists and technical experts.

Northern Lights on Food will run from 2021 to 2023. It consists of five working groups gathering a range of international researchers and industry representatives with expertise in food science and technology as well as characterisation methods using neutrons and x-rays.

X-rays and neutrons are key to advance food science

Professor Milena Corredig from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University is one of the core members of Northern Lights on Food. She emphasizes that the use of x-rays and neutrons is key to advance food science and our experience of food overall:

- Whether we consider individual ingredients or whole products, food is essentially a mixture of components with structure on multiple length scales from atomic to visible that can exist in various physical states. Often it is not clear which length scale is critical to delivering the appropriate quality and functionality. The use of x-ray and neutron allows us to observe in situ, under relevant research environments, the effect of the interactions during processing, for example, and test hypotheses that will unravel mechanisms in systems currently only known at an empirical level, she says and elaborates:  

- It is for example possible to look at starch degradation while shearing the dough or baking a cake. It is also possible to look at the mineral distribution in protein aggregates, by making the proteins “invisible” and look only at the signal of the minerals. Furthermore, it is possible to observe structural changes at the molecular level within a complex matrix.

Professor Anna Ström, from Chalmers University of Technology, another core member adds:

- Visualising contaminations through the use of x-rays and neutrons, for example heavy metals, can lead to increased and more efficient use of food. Increased protein and polysaccharides understanding is important for novel ingredients and is required throughout the protein shift. Improved understanding of ingredients throughout the food systems, also side streams, has the possibility to upgrade ingredients that are not edible today.

Develop a system knowledge of food

Taking food knowledge from the empirical level to the systems-level is currently one of the most important next steps when it comes to food, according to the researchers. Today, we might know WHAT happens in food products, but we often do not know WHY. This knowledge gap is a great barrier to developing new food products, made out of vegetable or lab-made proteins that might not have been used for human consumption before.

Leader of the research theme, Selma Maric, who is a Business and Industry Coordinator at LINXS, explains:

- By studying structures and processes at such high resolution we will learn more about how protein, lipids and vitamins behave so that we can mimic and improve food types such as milk or meat and make their processing more sustainable or even replace them with plant-based alternatives that are tasty. This is important in terms of making our food more sustainable and in decreasing emissions related to food production, says Selma Maric.

About the Northern Lights research theme at LINXS

The research theme brings together researchers from Lund University, European Spallation Source (ESS), Chalmers University of Technology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden and Aarhus University, as well as international researchers, and Swedish companies.

The theme consists of five working groups, which are structured in the following way:

1. Structures of Food Raw Materials.
2. Food Colloids and Structured Interfaces.
3. Structure of Food during Processing.
4. Food Interactions on Surfaces.
5. Food and Health - which runs across all the working groups. 

Further information

Read more about the new research theme in the press release from LINXS, which can be accessed here.

You may also want to read the article “DKK 30 million for research into the foods of the future” about the Villum Investigator title recently awarded to Milena Corredig

Contact: Professor Milena Corredig - Department of Food Science - mc@food.au.dk - Phone: +45 22719132