New research project to unlock complex food structure

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Academia and industry in Australia have united to explore the molecular structure and functionality of a variety of food proteins.

The consortium, dubbed the ‘Protein Syndicate’, is using state-of-the-art technology and materials science to ultimately enhance the design of consumer-friendly foods with improved taste, texture and nutritional qualities.

Dr Elliot Gilbert, the project leader at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) said that the researchers will use neutrons to probe the structure of food.

“While using neutrons to study food may seem unusual, they have the unique ability to identify the location of different atomic or molecular components in food,”​ he said.

“This will allow us to unlock the secrets of complex food structures, discover how these are altered by food processing and how modifications affect nutrition and long-term health. The work will be complemented with state-of-the-art X-ray scattering facilities.”

Complex foods, which not only have to please your taste, but also accomplish a specific "healthy" function, are normally made up of a large number of components, such as protein, vitamins, and carbohydrates which make challenging their structural optimisation.

By having a physically inspired approach one could assemble these components into nicely structured and stable foods.

The need of functional foods comes from nutritional aspects that are not directly related to the structure of the food. However, in order to release these functionalities in the body in a suitable way, the structure of the food becomes a key parameter.

Dr Ingrid Appelqvist, the research team leader with CSIRO’s Food Futures National Research Flagship, said the aim of the consortium was to determine the behaviour of a range of food proteins and use this knowledge to better predict how formulation variables and manufacturing processes are likely to affect the finished product.

“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,”​ she said.

“Our ultimate goal is to design new, highly nutritious 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.”

European expertise

Other researchers around the globe are also studying the molecular structure of food. Dr Richard Frazier, a senior lecturer in food biochemistry, and head of the food and bioprocessing sciences group at the University of Reading’s Department of Food Biosciences told FoodNavigator ​that food scientists have studied the molecular basis for food protein functionality for decades.

“As highlighted by the Australian 'Protein Syndicate', better understanding of the response of food proteins to different food processing environments is an important part of this puzzle, although there are other complexities to factor in, such as interactions with other food components and with interfaces,” ​he said.

“In our own work we are currently using neutron scattering and reflectivity techniques in combination with molecular spectroscopy and microscopy to characterise the functional role of proteins that control the milling characteristics of wheat through their interactions with lipids and starch.

“This work is in collaboration with scientists from the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source at the UK Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

“There is much to be learned from future study of food proteins using the latest state-of-the-art techniques that will provide the food industry with a knowledge base to predict the effects of various food processing operations on functional and nutritional quality,”​ said Dr Frazier.


In addition to ANSTO and the Food Futures Flagship, the Protein Syndicate also includes the University of Queensland’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences.

Industrial partners include Fonterra Dairy Co-operative Limited, George Weston Foods, Meat & Livestock Australia, Manildra Group and Dairy Innovation Australia.

Related topics Science Proteins

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