The commercial and health benefits of microstructural food design

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Since 2013, research at UoB into the microstructural design of food has continued to impact significantly on leading international companies. In addition, it has facilitated new product development for SMEs, led to influential consultancy work, and has had downstream impact on public health and wellbeing.

Research at UoB into the functional microstructure of food has had a significant and ongoing impact on Commerce and the Economy. It continues to contribute to innovation and entrepreneurial activity through the design and delivery of new fat, salt and sugar-reduced foods. The work represents a step change in the understanding of emulsion behaviour in flow and its reach and significance extends to a wide range of multinational food companies (including Kraft, Unilever and PepsiCo), enabling them to create products that improve consumers’ Health and Wellbeing and facilitating downstream benefits on public health and quality of life by tackling obesity and enabling healthier choices. 

Each company has confirmed that UoB’s research made a distinct and material contribution to the product’s formulation and has continued to fund basic research in microstructure engineering of soft solids at UoB.

Key researchers

Professor Ian Norton

School of Chemical Engineering
Professor of Chemical Engineering

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Research impact on innovation & entrepreneurial activity

The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with a turnover of £97.3 billion.5.1 Research at UoB into soft solid microstructures has had significant and wide-ranging impact on this increasingly health and nutritionally conscious consumer market by enabling multinational food manufacturers to successfully invent, develop and market a greatly expanded range of fat, salt and sugar-reduced products. This contributes directly to Public Heath England’s measures to reduce saturated fat and sugar consumption to 11% and 5% of calories respectively and salt to 6g/day,5.2 and also generates substantial sales and profits in this key economic sector.

The findings from UoB’s research into phase inversion/colloidal structures fed directly into the investment in novel manufacturing processes and the launch of innovative new low-fat food products by Unilever,5.3/5.4 PepsiCo,5.5 and Cargill.5.3/5.6 Researchers at UoB have worked closely with these and other companies in long-term partnerships to maximise the impact from their research findings. Norton was invited to act as a consultant for Brinkers based on his research into colloidal structures, while PepsiCo and Diageo have introduced new low-salt snacks using microstructure design developed at UoB.

Research into mixed biopolymers continues to enable low-fat spreads and cheeses to be produced at the same cost as full-fat versions (Unilever). Low-fat spreads alone are estimated to be worth ~20 Billion Euros per year globally (2008-20) and Unilever’s sales of these products have increased significantly in correlation with a decrease in margarine sales.

In addition, our research into fat crystallisation led to fat and sugar-reduced chocolate products using new emulsion design techniques (Pladis), and work on sheared/fluid gels has led to fat replacement in mayonnaise, salad dressings, icings and toppings (Bakkavor, Rich Products). Internationally, Hellman’s and Lipton’s (Unilever) continue to make significant market impact and Science in Sport is developing a new range of gel products enabling controlled release of macronutrients for athletes. Finally, research undertaken as part of the EPSRC-funded Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Food (2014-2019) has directly benefited SMEs (Lo-Dough) as well as multinationals.5.7

The major impact of UoB’s research continues to be the enabling of global food companies to address the challenge of producing volume-sales food products that have low or zero sugar, fat or salt content whilst retaining the taste and texture expected by consumers. The take-up of this work by major companies (outlined in the table) has led to their increased market value and increased the consumption of healthy foods by their customers.

Research impact on public health & quality of life

The downstream impact of UoB’s soft solid microstructure research are the health benefits brought about by the increasing number of alternatives to conventional processed foods. This is of major significance given the estimated overall cost of obesity in the UK (~£27 billion). The link between diet, obesity and ill-health is well established and forms a major element of public health advice in the UK and elsewhere;5.8 the NHS spent ~£6.1 billion on overweight and obesity-related ill health in 2014/2015 alone.5.1 To tackle this, UoB’s research on Pickering and duplex emulsions effected a step change in hidden-fat reduction. In particular, air-filled emulsions ensure that fat is not replaced with sugar. Kraft will launch a number of products using these techniques, e.g. egg protein fluid gels for very low-fat mayonnaise, in 2021.

In addition, there is evidence that consumers are increasingly interested in healthy eating. 50% of customers surveyed by the FSA were concerned by the sugar content of food, higher than any other factor including price (40% were concerned about the amount of salt and 37% the amount of fat).5.9 Unilever has committed to helping people achieve healthier diets, and UoB’s research has contributed to the fact that 34% of its products now meet the criteria for the highest nutritional standards.5.10 The wider availability of attractive low-fat options in a growing range of everyday foods has increased consumer choice, benefitted individuals’ health and wellbeing, and helped reduce the health-related costs of obesity, a major global issue. 

Underpinning research

Research on soft solid microstructures is led by Ian Norton (professor, 2006-present). The research underpinning its continued impact seeks to understand how 1. phase inversion/colloidal structures, 2. fat crystallisation, 3. mixed biopolymers, 4. sheared/fluid gels, 5. Pickering emulsions, and 6. duplex or air-filled emulsions can be designed to have positive health benefits. It both informs and responds to industry demand for healthier alternatives to conventional food products.

The key research finding is the fundamental mechanistic understanding of emulsion behaviour in flow. This enabled process engineers to apply the kinetics of phase change and hydrocolloid physical chemistry to fat-continuous products. The work, initiated by Pacek (professor, 2006-2018), and continued by Norton, with Spyropoulos (PDRA 2006-2010, senior lecturer 2010-present), Mills (PDRA 2013-2015, lecturer 2015-present), Pelan (professor, 2018-present) and Wolf (professor, 2018-present), was fundamental in enabling industry to develop a self-catalytic inversion process by controlling and manipulating fat crystals at the oil/water interface. Because of UoB’s research, inversion is now temperature controlled (not time controlled) allowing rapid inversion and continuous production of products such as low and very low-fat spreads.

This work continues to produce new impacts through industry uptake, new product development, and consultancy. For example, research into phase-separating biopolymer systems and the control of these via process conditions (Spyropoulos) led to the ability to produce zero-fat spreads which are stable on storage and break down when consumed to give the physical properties and flavour release expected from margarine. The process has been adopted in the USA and UK by Unilever.

Research into fluid gels (Spyropoulos, Norton, Wolf, Pacek), where the structuring of hydrocolloids is carried out in different flow regimes, continues to generate impact (Kraft, Unilever, Cargill, Science in Sport). Particles formed on a microscale can replace fat in emulsions, be used for novel foam stabilisation, [and deliver controlled and sustained energy release for sports and health foods]. Recently, research in this area has led to the development of new techniques for the production of thermo-stable fluid gels (Norton). An enhanced understanding of the molecular events occurring during fluid gel formation has allowed the production of small (<10 μm), spherical and reasonably soft particles which resemble oil droplets. These particles, when used in emulsion-based products to replace a significant proportion of the oil, show rheology matching that of the full-fat original. The potential of fluid gels to impart sensory attributes typically associated with fat has led to their use by Rich Products and Bakkavor.

Work on fat-reduced emulsions has led to patented technology for both chocolate (Fryer, professor, 1994-present) and bakery fats (Norton, Spyropoulos), and is in continued use by PepsiCo and Pladis. The ongoing impact of research into Pickering emulsions to engineer crystallisation processes and understand the physics of particles at interfaces that can resist osmotic forces and so segregate sugars and water or salt and water to allow up to an 80% salt reduction in snacks, has led to new PepsiCo products. Finally, research on duplex emulsions (Norton), based on the physical chemistry and microstructure of shell formation around droplets, has reduced the hidden fat in foods (Kraft).

Corroboration

5.1 Global Food Security, Transformative Innovation Across Food Supply Chains to Improve Decision-Making (2019), pp. 5 and 9.

5.2 Public Health England, Government Dietary Recommendations: Government recommendations for energy and nutrients for males and females aged 1-18 years and 19+ years (2016), p. 7.

5.3 Letter of support from Peter Lillford

5.4 Letter of support from Ian Noble (Mondelez, formerly Unilever)

5.5 Letter of support from Lead Scientist (Mondelez) OR from from Sue Feuerhelm (Bakkavor)

5.6 Letter of support from Tim Ingmire (European Research Director, PepsiCo)

5.7 Letter of support from Rob Wales (Lo-Dough)

5.8 NHS England, Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet (2018), p. 37.

5.9 Food Standards Agency, Biannual Public Attitudes Tracker (2018), pp. 11 and 81-2.

5.10 PricewaterhouseCoopers, Unilever’s Basis of Preparation 2015 for those Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) and Environmental and Occupational Safety (EOS) performance measures selected for independent assurance (2015), p. 2. 

Research team

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