Why are some foods jelly-like, others sticky and yet others crunchy or chewy? Getting answers to questions like these allows scientists to improve the physical and compositional properties of food and, as a result, the processes by which food is produced, sold, and eventually consumed.
“We look at processed foods as a bunch of interconnected Lego blocks,” says Dr. Dérick Rousseau of the Food and Soft Materials Research Group. The lab explores the underlying formation and structure of a food in order to better understand how it behaves in various contexts, such as when heated, aerated, mixed with other ingredients, stored on a shelf or even digested in our bodies.
“By unveiling its structure under the microscope, we can optimize how food is processed, extend freshness and shelf life, and develop novel and sometimes healthier products,” says Rousseau.
“We can alter foods at the molecular level to change the way they behave, including how long they stay fresh and how their nutrients are absorbed.”
Through partnerships with companies ranging from multinationals to local start-ups, those novel products include reduced-fat foods with the same mouthfeel as full-fat versions, all-natural peanut butter that doesn’t separate, a plant-based salmon filet, and a non-animal based fat derived from food waxes. The lab doesn’t create “recipes” for such innovations but instead works at the molecular level to understand how each basic element of a single food can be acted upon to change—and improve—its properties.
Over the years, Rousseau has also partnered with Dr. Nick Bellissimo of TMU’s School of Nutrition to improve the satiety of foods in order to counter Canada’s growing obesity epidemic. He also founded the journal Food Structure in 2014, the premier international forum devoted to food structure and functionality.
An internationally-recognized leader in food science, Rousseau’s lab is able to demonstrate how even small tweaks in structure open up a world of possibilities when it comes to the taste, texture, health and performance of foods.