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Investigating molecular structure of foods to improve safety

13 September, 2006

Under an agreement signed between the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and CSIRO, scientists will seek to determine the molecular structure of the foods we eat.

“This research will provide Australian scientists with the ability to design new foods with improved taste, texture and health-improving qualities,” says ANSTO’s Executive Director, Dr Ian Smith. “We will be conducting cutting-edge research to understand the structure of ingredients that go into food and aspects of food safety.”

Initial projects will study the structure of starch in relation to its long-term nutritional benefits in reducing the risk of colorectal cancer and the incidence of diabetes.

The partnership brings ANSTO’s sophisticated capabilities in characterising materials together with CSIRO’s broad food research capabilities through its Food Futures and Preventative Health Flagships. Food Science Australia – a joint venture of CSIRO and the Victorian Government – and the University of Queensland are also partners in the project.

Dr Smith says that while using neutrons to study food may seem unusual, neutrons have the unique ability to identify the location of different atomic components in food, particularly water molecules.

“ANSTO’s contribution will be to take neutrons produced by its OPAL reactor to conduct sophisticated measurement science via advanced neutron scattering techniques,” Dr Smith says. “This will allow us to unlock the secrets of complex food structures, how these are altered by food processing and how such modifications affect nutrition and long-term health. The work will be complemented with state-of-the-art X-ray scattering facilities.”

CSIRO Group Executive for Agribusiness, Dr Alastair Robertson, says there is a pressing need for fundamental research into the correlation between the nanostructure of food and its physical and biochemical properties so that we are able to model, predict and control the behaviour of food raw materials and ingredients subjected to processing.

“CSIRO brings to this project detailed knowledge in food, nutrition, food processing and the methods to solve the problems associated with manufacture while ANSTO will provide the physical understanding of structural events in processing and the changes that occur in foods,” he says.

“The project also aims to understand how the structure of food-proteins are affected by water and the changes that occur during processing, particularly as this relates to the development of new products which meet the quality and nutritional expectations of the consumer. The processes involved in protecting high value-added components or delivering natural protective food components to specific areas of the digestive tract, will also be advanced by optimising the structure of the encapsulating materials.

“We envisage these techniques will provide the foundation of understanding other complex food problems such as food spoilage and microbial growth and will prove highly valuable in food processing and even in the processes of the digestive tract,” Dr Robertson says.

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