Humanity has been creating food structures to suit changing tastes and needs for millennia. But to deliver new types of food to customers who expect the best, means taking cooking beyond the possibilities of the kitchen.
So what actually are food structures?
Food structures are really part of defining food expectations. A food’s structure gives a particular food much of its expected properties. For instance, if you’ve eaten a banana before you have an expectation of what a banana tastes like, what it feels like and the effect it will have on your appetite. Loosely defined, these cues are largely from its structure and appearance. Under different conditions similar structural building blocks can create different types of food.
Take dairy products for example. In all dairy products there are three components, fat globules, casein micelles and whey proteins that under different conditions create different food structures. They can be made into emulsions (butter), foams (whipped cream and ice cream), fluids (milk), solids (cheese) or gels (yogurt).
Food is structured how?
Traditionally food structuring was cooking. But to create entirely new food structures with special functions, we need to go beyond the possibilities of experimental cuisine. Food structuring is an emerging discipline that uses all the investigative technology available. Food is examined from the molecular, to the microscopic, to the macro scale.
The idea is to build on the culinary experience, the artistry of cooking, so that novel edible creations can make the transition from the stove to the shelves. This area is gaining momentum under the header "Molecular Gastronomy" where 3 star Michelin chefs are working with Food Sciences to define this exciting new area.
The improvements to food are?
An example of this technology is in the understanding of chocolate bloom. This is the grey dust-like covering that appears on the surface of old chocolate. It is actually a coating of fat molecules that have migrated to the surface.
By studying chocolate with laser microscopes we now know how this happens and can set about preventing it. Or in the case of pasta and sauce, if the surface of the pasta is too smooth, sauces won’t stick to it. New generations of pasta have been altered so the surface is stickier, the sauce clings to it and the combination is tastier and more enjoyable.
Improving food to improve lives
Food structural design is by no means exclusively concerned with changing food appearance and flavour. Altering food structures can have a significant impact on people’s lives. For instance, a particular problem in developing countries is inadequate refrigeration and the lack of manufacturing infrastructure. Intended to address these problems, new manufacturing techniques have been developed by Unilever specifically for developing world conditions. Allowing local production on a small scale, or even at home, which requires less refrigeration. High quality products are being produced to meet the needs of low-income consumers.
In the area of weight management, Unilever is developing food products that can reduce hunger pangs between meals. This has been done by changing the way fat-based emulsions are digested in the gut, which affects how quickly food is passed through the gut and the type of satiety signal that is produced. Other foodstuffs have been developed with altered energy-releasing properties. They break down into sugars more slowly and gradually. As a result you feel less hungry and for a longer period.
Where to from here?
At Unilever this exciting new discipline draws on culinary experience, along with technological and scientific expertise to meet food design challenges for tomorrow.