The importance of research in the area of food cannot be underestimated. Two main issues come to mind, that of Nutrition and Health and the other that of Food Security. Globally, the manufactured food industry is constantly under pressure to reduce costs and make food more decadent and available. This has resulted in the use of highly refined, micronutrient-poor, calorie-rich ingredients, addition of excessive amounts of sugar and saturated/trans fats, and excessive use of packaging materials.
Food ingredients are sourced internationally and even simple/everyday food products can contain ingredients originating from the four corners of the world. This leads to the issue of Food Security. Will our society be able to feed its people in the future? Are we supporting local food production enough in order to ensure this? Are we taking care of our water and land resources, or are we still building subdivisions on prime agricultural land? Some of the questions that should come to mind while shopping in the local supermarket include: Is this food unnecessarily "bad for you"? Where does this food come from? Is this food safe to eat, both from microbiological, toxicological and nutritional perspectives? Is this food nutritious?
Research in our lab focuses on utilizing locally grown or sourced agricultural products and structuring them physically (no chemical transformation) into food products with the required functionality and improved nutritional quality. We focus our work on fats and oils due to their great importance in most food products we love to eat.
For example, based on our understanding of the physical, chemical and nutritional functionality of fats, we have developed "oleogels", which are basically "oil jello", which behave like highly saturated fat, such as palm oil. In this way, we can use a locally grown vegetable oil and transform it using modified fiber into a material with the functionality of fat for baking, meat and confectionery applications.
We have also developed oil-in-water structured emulsions that can be used as all-purpose shortening in most baking applications. These developments should lead the way for phasing out food products with excessive amounts of saturated and trans fats! Political pressure may be necessary, though, since the food industry is very reactionary and afraid of change. Anything that increases the bottom line, even if it is only in the short term (next quarter syndrome) is viewed negatively by large food manufacturers.
We have also recently started working on petroleum-free cosmetic products. We have developed a replacement for Vaseline, lip gloss, and a moisturizing body lotion. These products contain no petroleum products, contain food-grade ingredients and are thus essentially edible.