5B Molecular structure of food

The modern consumer is increasingly seeking food products that can bring health benefits or prevent diseases. Ideally, health issues like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular health, growth and mental performance of children, and resistance to diseases are addressed by using food products rather than drugs. As a result, there is a growing demand for functional foods and accordingly, the market for such products is growing considerably every year. The world market for functional foods has increased to about 48 billion Euros in 2003. The Dutch market for health and wellness functional foods has a value in excess of 280 million Euro (2006).

One of the biggest challenges for the food industry is the formulation of high quality products with good appearance, texture and organoleptic properties containing incorporated health and functional ingredients. As a result, the demands on the improvement of existing food products and the development of novel ones are increasing to such an extent that ‘molecular engineering’ has become a necessity to fully control the product formation. This requires novel approaches based on new, fundamental technologies related to nanotechnology and advanced spectroscopies. The Netherlands have a strong tradition in food engineering, with an internationally highly competitive and innovative industry. The advanced design and analysis tools that have been, and are being developed, in academia and industry, can play a key role in strengthening the market position of Dutch food companies.

In this programme, the focus lies on the four main molecular constituents of food: proteins, lipids, (poly)saccharides, and water. Nanostructures of these materials are omnipresent in foods. These structures result from either controlled, directed assembly or form spontaneously from molecular building blocks. Insights into the intermolecular interactions that underlie these assemblies are essential for the rational design of novel food products. Indeed, the growing demand for functional foods is largely driven by the increasing knowledge of the relationship between food ingredients and their impact on human health and physiological functions. The design of functional foods, however, presents the food industry with enormous scientific and technological challenges. The formulation and delivery of bioactive lyophobic molecules (e.g. nutraceuticals like cholesterol-lowering sterols) is problematic due to their low solubility in water and limited solubility in common oils. Therefore, assuring optimal functionality of bioactive molecules is a major challenge for food companies in designing novel functional products.

The research projects proposed here aim at contributing to a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms and rules underlying food products. Such understanding, in turn, is expected to lead to the design and fabrication of novel functional foods that can deliver health and vitality benefits in products with excellent taste and stability through a fundamental understanding of the (supra-) molecular mechanisms at work.

Back to theme 5: Food

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Programme Director:
Dr. Krassimir P. Velikov (Unilever)