26 January 2022

X-rays will make plant diets of the future more tasty

FOOD SCIENCE

X-rays can be used to examine the tiniest parts of food and provide us with fresh knowledge about what makes yogurt feel soft and what it takes for chocolate to have just the right snap. According to researchers at the University of Copenhagen, the method can be used to optimize foodstuffs and help us produce ever-tastier plant-based diets that benefit the climate.

Photo of a young woman choosing between cake or vegetables
Photo: Getty Images

Imagine taking your favorite treat – a Mars bar or cream puff – and beaming it with X-rays to map out what makes it so delicious. Then, picture being able to transfer some of those magnificent qualities and tastes to healthier, more sustainable products.

Such a fantasy could become reality if the Small Angle X-ray Scattering method is used, known as SAXS. By using X-rays, SAXS makes it possible to study food at the nanolevel, where a nanometer equals one millionth of a millimeter.

SAXS has yet to be widely deployed for food research, but the the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science is working on the method and has acquired a new Nano-inXider instrument that uses X-ray radiation to examine foodstuffs, among other things.

The method has great potential in relation to the foods of the future, says Jacob Kirkensgaard, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science, as well as at the Niels Bohr Institute. Kirkensgaard uses SAXS equipment in his research, where he collaborates with the Department of Pharmacy and Lund University.

"SAXS can be used to optimize the development of foodstuffs in relation to their taste, texture and nutritional content. For example, when we look at the structure and function of  foods at the nanolevel, we could improve their design so that they break down in such a way that as many nutrients as possible are absorbed. In this way, we can help prevent obesity and improve health," he says.

Can make plant proteins easier to eat

SAXS can also be used to make our foods more sustainable, explains Professor Lilia Arhné of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science.

Together with Jacob Kirkensgaard, she used the SAXS method to study how milk proteins behave in various sustainable processing methods.

"Our knowledge of how milk components give a special taste, mouthfeel and texture can be used for research into plant-based proteins. Because, if we can map out exactly what it is that makes milk nourish us, feel soft in the mouth and taste sweet and salty, we could copy those properties into new plant-based products that are easier on our climate, which would help get more people to consume them," she explains.

The two researchers have already met with great interest from Danish industry in relation to how the SAXS method can make it easier to produce tasty plant proteins.

"Recently, we met with a range of large Danish food producers and ingredient suppliers. They are particularly curious about how they can make delicious plant-based foods, without compromising taste and structure," says Jacob Kirkensgaard.

He underscores that the development of new sustainable and innovative foodstuffs depends on our being able to understand and analyse the structure of individual products.

"As such, the University of Copenhagen's commitment to the SAXS method is interesting. We certainly hope that industry embraces it," concludes Jacob Kirkensgaard.

Her ses Nano-inXider SAXS-apparatet, som står på Institut for Fødevarevidenskab på Københavns Universitet. En røntgenkilde i bunden af instrumentet producerer røntgenstråler, der rammer en prøve i det centrale kammer, og den spredte stråling opfanges på to særskilte detektorer i midten og i toppen af instrumentet. Foto: Jacob Kirkensgaard

Here you see the Nano-inXider machine that resides in Department of Food Science at University of Copenhagen. Photo: Jacob Kirkensgaard

 

 

 

 

Contact

Jacob Judas Kain Kirkensgaard
Associate Professor
Department of Food Science
University of Copenhagen
+45 23 74 68 63
jjkk@food.ku.dk

Lilia Ahrné
Professor
Department of Food Science
University of Copenhagen
+45 93 56 55 07
lilia@food.ku.dk

Ida Eriksen
Journalist
Faculty of Science
University of Copenhagen
+45 93 51 60 02
ier@science.ku.dk

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