By Rob McMahon
By Rob McMahon
Nanotechnology offers much promise for baking ingredients. A peek at what’s to come.
One of the most thrilling aspects of food nanotechnology is the potential it holds for new ingredients. Imagine a variety of new flavours and textures to use in baked products. Functional foods could more effectively deliver nutrients, while ingredients might also contain spinoff benefits such as preventing moisture loss.
Dr. Paul Takhistov from Rutgers University explains that nanotechnology has been used in food flavours for almost a century. Although called “submicro particles” back then, they essentially used the same principles as nanotechnology.
“Most food products used micro- or nano- structure,” he says.
Dr. Takhistov speaks of ingredients that will soon be commercially available containing a nano-sized coating. This coating would be used to prevent cracks in cakes, maintain moisture in baked goods and keep meringues fresh. He says nanotechnology could also be used to add flavour enhancers and infusions or facilitate the delivery of nutrients.
“[Adding nano-materials] can directly change the quality and appearance of leading products,” he said.
To be a part of that, Leatherhead Foods International, which is based in the United Kingdom, recently formed NanoWatch, an internationally focused collaborative research initiative which will “look at applications of nanotechnology in controlling food ingredient functionality and performance,” according to the company’s website. The site states that nano-ingredients “promise to ultimately deliver control of structural and quality properties by design from the bottom up,” essentially allowing food producers to build some food ingredients from scratch. The company also notes that while applications in packaging and food safety are quite widespread, the use of nanotechnology in ingredients and product innovation is less studied.
NanoWatch, which is composed primarily of members of the food and drink industry who are connected to Leatherhead Foods, will meet once a year – though they will also “touch base” every few months electronically. According to project co-ordinator Kathy Groves, a food microscopist, the group will begin by looking at micro technology and move to the nano-scale depending on the results. During its first year, the group will look at the areas of emulsions and vitamins, and in the future evaluate other areas within ingredient categories like salt and sugar.
“The ingredients aspect is a novel one, we feel, and an area that we are well qualified to address,” she writes in an e-mail interview. “On the ingredients side, the role of fat in the texture and stability of baked products is one that we know will respond well to this study. The role of starch in both functionality and also in GI [glycemic index] and health issues will be addressed by nanotechnology research also.”
Several major food producers such as Kraft and Nestle are reported to be involved in nanotechnological formulations, but information on their discoveries is not widely available. The Nanowerk website, a news portal on nanotechnology, states that Kraft is developing “interactive” products that might, for example, recognize and adjust to a consumer’s allergies or nutritional needs. The website also states that Nestle and Unilever are exploring emulsifiers that will make food texture more uniform.
Dr. Derick Rousseau at Ryerson University’s School of Nutrition is working on a number of projects involving ingredient functionality, which he said is a growing field. He explains that while not all of his work involves nanotechnology – which he defines as the manipulation of materials at the atomic level, rather than just nano-sized materials – the baking industry might be interested in his focus on multi-functional ingredients. Dr. Rousseau gives the example of a “new and improved” product similar to milk protein, which has health benefits and also gels well in cheeses and yogurts.
“[These ingredients] could have health benefits and functional properties that the baking industry might be interested in, such as emulsions, foams or gels,” he says. “We’re working to target specifically the health attributes when a component is added to food.”
An ingredient used as an emulsion could have the added benefit of anti-microbial properties. At present, fertilizers, pesticides, probiotics and nutrients are usually applied by spraying them onto fields or dispersing them throughout food products. In the future, encapsulation methods devised through
nanotechnology could potentially be used to deliver these ingredients to specific, targeted “receiver” sites, maximizing their benefits.
“Nanotechnology can be used to create health-promoting components and preservatives, especially in frozen products,” says Dr. Takhistov.
Nanotechnology could also improve the nutritional quality of processed foods. For example, these foods often lose much of their antioxidant benefits during modern processing methods. Heat-sensitive nutrients like beta-carotene and Omega-3 fatty acids are often damaged by methods such as
pasteurization and canning. New technology could encapsulate these acids in new capsules – made of either liquid or solid shells – that would better protect the ingredient.
“Encapsulating omega-3 oils….doesn’t require a nanotechnology approach,” says Dr. Rousseau. “[But it still] allows encapsulation [of ingredients] within the body in a way that the oil will be protected from its external environment.”
Finally, nano-emulsions, which are tiny spheres of oil droplets suspended in water and require only miniscule amounts of active microbial ingredients, can be rapidly produced in large quantities. These nano-emulsions could be used to decontaminate food processing plants and reduce surface contamination of meat and poultry products.