This new way of modelling mastication will also give the industry a new understanding of ways to reduce sugar and fat in food while also putting more fibre and nutrients into their products, says biomechanical engineer and computer modeller Dr Simon Harrison of CSIRO, the Australian government’s research agency. It might even help in the creation of new food sensations.
The physics of chewing
“In polite company, we can’t see inside someone’s mouth while they’re eating and, until now, it has not been possible to view how the chewing process alters food,” he said.
“We anticipate this model will be used firstly to understand what’s going on inside the mouth. We can record this and pull out information you just can’t gather using physical devices.”
Harrison and his team have used a cutting-edge technique called smooth particle hydrodynamics (SPH), an alternative method of engineering analysis that helps scientists consider things like how particles break apart and how they mix with other substances.
Built on real data about the physics of chewing, the technique can predict how a particular food breaks down and how flavour is released in the mouth. It also shows the distribution and interaction of components such as salt, sugar and fat.
“If you break [this technique] down to its elements, we look at particles that are represented in the computer model as they move around and break apart. It is a change in how we use mathematics to gain the ability to look at lots of phenomena at the same time,” Harrison told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“If you chew something like a salted peanut, the salt that makes it to your taste buds becomes part of the flavour experience, but a lot of the salt that is swallowed does not influence the taste buds and goes to waste.
“If you think about it, you could use our model to know exactly how much salt is needed to provide the right flavour experience and remove all the salt that will never make it to your taste buds.”
Economic and health benefits
This would clearly have economic for food processors looking to make economies in the ingredients they use, including fats and sugars. It can also have health benefits for consumers looking to cut down on their consumption of these components.
“As we learn more about how foods break down in the mouth, we can learn how to produce products that are healthier but still have the same sensory experience for the consumer.
According to CSIRO food materials scientist Dr Leif Lundin: “This technology will give food and ingredient manufacturers the ability not only to model the breakdown of a complex food product, but also the individual components.
“It can also model the costs of making changes to a product, and then calculate the cost benefit. This will save time and money, compared to using the traditional ‘cook and look’ approach.”
CSIRO is currently engaging with companies to get projects moving, and the research is at the stage whereby Harrison and his team are combining experiments to give inputs to the model and also validate what the model is revealing.
“Our model gives us a new understanding, and we can work with companies to bring that understanding to help them with improving existing foods and developing new ones,” Harrison added.