Engineering your Christmas dinner – with Chemistry

Festive food

Food is a big part of Christmas celebrations for many people, so its quality, taste, cost – and of course the ease of cleaning the dishes afterwards – are all important factors in creating the perfect dining experience.

Chemical Engineering research at the University of Birmingham may not be the first thing to spring to mind when thinking of your Christmas dinner, but with its applications in a wide range of industrial food processes, it has big implications for your festive feast.

Serafim Bakalis is a Professor in Structured Products at the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering. His work, which spans the areas of food production, consumption and waste removal (cleaning), involves applying engineering principles to chemical processes to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

Food production

Professor Bakalis has done extensive work on the kinds of specialist products that are often in demand at Christmas, like chocolate, coffee and cheese.

His work on the effects of cooling rates on the crystalline structure of chocolate has helped Cadbury’s to develop different manufacturing techniques according to product shape. Thanks to his research, each of those chocolate bars in your selection box has a slightly different chemical structure, as well as a slightly different melting point – both of which are designed to optimise the flavour and texture of your treat.

His research into instant coffee production has also helped coffee-producing giants to optimise their production processes, using less water and less energy, ultimately keeping the product affordable for the consumer.

Similarly, his work has helped to develop more efficient ways to manage the production process of cheese, by using double emulsions to control the delivery of fermenting bacteria.

Food consumption

The way in which food interacts with our bodies is just as important as how it is produced, and optimising our taste and digestion experience is the key to creating a satisfying dinner – Christmas or otherwise.

With festive over-indulgence a common theme for many of us, there is a real demand for reduced-fat, reduced-salt foods. Professor Bakalis’ work exploring the mechanical processes involved in eating and digestion is helping manufacturers to develop healthier versions of traditionally high-fat and high-salt products without compromising flavour and texture.

He has also developed models to predict how different foods will be digested, allowing manufacturers to be more strategic with their product development instead of relying on the relatively slow and inefficient process of trial-and-error.

Cleaning products

One downside to an indulgent Christmas dinner is the inevitable cleaning up afterwards. Dirty dishes, spilled sauce and wayward wine – removing food spills and stains can be tough, so finding ways to get the job done more easily is a priority for manufacturers of cleaning products.

Professor Bakalis has done extensive work into this ‘final frontier’ of food, particularly looking at the role that mechanical forces play in the cleaning process, and how they can either complement or inhibit chemical processes.

Working closely with P&G, he is developing a new generation of cleaning products based on a better understanding of how consumers behave, for example, in terms of loading dishwashers and washing machines. His models are helping manufacturers to predict how different chemicals will perform under various conditions, leading to faster innovation and design of superior cleaning products.

Of course, the huge range of research being conducted by Professor Bakalis and his colleagues in the School of Chemical Engineering is about more than improving Christmas dinner.

The research has important implications for improving water and energy efficiency, with novel food production and cleaning methods developed at the University of Birmingham resulting in a 5-20% reduction in water requirements and a 10-30% reduction in time/energy expenditure. In countries where water and energy are scarce or extremely expensive, these savings represent a move towards truly sustainable technology.

ENDS

For more information, contact Liz Bell in the University of Birmingham Press Office on +44 (0)121 414 2772.