It is believed that the humble loaf has been around in one form or another for 30,000 years and played a central role in the formation of human societies across Western Asia, Europe and North Africa. It inspired early man to begin the agricultural revolution, driving one of the longest and most widespread human-driven genetic modification processes in order to improve yield and quality of grain.
Fast-forward to the modern day and I’m listening to a scientist describe baking a loaf in a medical CAT scanner.
Despite the pivotal role played by bread-making in the development of modern man, recipes were developed experimentally over the generations and so we still know relatively little about the complex interplays between ingredients during the distinct stages of the bread making process. From ingredient selection and refinement to proving and baking, the results of each process are judged at the end of the bake using a mix of highly complex tests which measure a plethora of physical and chemical properties in multiple states. The measure of success is made more complicated by the addition of human opinion and inherited cultural biases. This makes it extremely difficult to trace the origins of desired results through scientific means beyond trial and error. This is true for almost all cooked or processed foods which make up so much of the modern diet.
The Institute of Physics has been running a series of Physics in Food Manufacturing conferences which aim to shine a light on this fact and encourage food manufacturers to invest in research into their processes. At a two day event in January, a line-up of scientists described their research in a fascinating, and sometimes slightly surreal, series of talks. The aforementioned scientist was scanning the baking loaf to understand what happens to the bubbles in bread during the bake. Gas bubbles make up around 75 – 80% volume of a loaf and give so much character definition to each variety. Colour and softness (or pappiness) are key characteristics for the consumer.
Other presentations described experiments such as the tribological study involving the rubbing of a synthetic tongue-like material against food samples to categorise the feeling of food in the mouth, dipping and double dipping foods into sauces to classify the resulting coatings, and robotic chefs capable of autonomous mass-production of food in darkened factories.
I was struck by how much of today’s seemingly mundane foods are actually extremely complex materials. Some more theoretical research presented included the flow and evolution of ice-sucrose crystal mushes (or a granita to the average thirsty holidaymaker), and the use of neutron scattering to unravel the complex structure of food, a technique often reserved for particle physicists and materials scientists.
As part of the event, Cambridge Consultants displayed and presented a novel process for producing continuously manufactured microcapsules, offering great potential for use in the food industry as a way of delivering anything from flavours to supplements in hollow microspheres. Whether we’re developing an inhaler, a beverage dispense system or a food production process our scientists and engineers work seamlessly to ensure understanding of the physical chemistry and material properties is embedded in our design.
The challenges of food availability and sustainability for an ever-expanding world population, and as the western consumer becomes ever more demanding/cost conscious, make it clear that a much higher degree of science will need to be applied throughout the supply chain. Approaches include:
- optimising manufacturing yields through sensing and control,
- reducing manufacturing costs through redesigning processes to operate continuously rather than in batches,
- vision systems to classify and sort objects or detect foreign objects, or
- applying data science techniques to implement strategies such as Industry 4.0
Cambridge Consultants’ facilities, experience and breadth of available expertise can address these challenges, providing the food industry with unique capability to tackle projects spanning technology research and opportunity identification to machine monitoring, packaging and process design.