When people think of great tasting food, they probably associate it with nature and craftsmanship rather than science. In more and more cases, however, basic scientific understanding of the food matrix is at the origin of better taste, nicer appearance, longer shelf life and more healthy recipes.
It is therefore not too bold to state that Bright Science contributes to great taste, Corporate Scientist Biochemistry and Microbiology Oliver May argues.
How do you create a better tasting Mozzarella cheese which isn’t too soft or firm? A simple question - but hard to answer. “From a biochemical perspective, the role of enzymes in food is extremely complex and that of micro-organisms even more”, says May. “Furthermore, these are only some of the actors in the whole of a food matrix. Which factors contribute to taste? And how do you guarantee that improved taste doesn’t damage, for instance, texture or shelf life?” These are some of the issues that intrigue May on a daily basis.
Health and food are important contributors to our quality of life. May: “Biochemistry literally is the ‘chemistry of life’, the key to unlock understanding about the building blocks of life. That notion drives me; we can use enzymes and microbes in medicine and food to solve some of the many global problems. Understanding opens the gates to innovations that improve nutritional value, health aspects and the way we enjoy our food.”
A nice example is the use of enzymes in dairy products to avoid sugar addition. May: “We developed an enzyme that degrades lactose. It was originally designed for a special diet, to help lactose intolerant people. As a side-effect, it caused sweeter tasting yoghurt. It has become an application for a bigger market – offering the sweet taste people like, without the sugar load. The result is a more healthy food product for all.”
The texture and taste combination of cheese is so complex, that cheese-making used to be the domain of taste experts with great experience and gut feeling. “More and more, we address these aspects with biotechnology and thus add a science basis to the craftsmanship”, says May, and underlines another vital aspect: “There is no innovation without collaboration. Food innovation requires a spectrum of interconnected elements and capabilities, which all contribute to success.”
The challenge starts when marketing and sales people detect opportunities in solutions that consumers wish for, but that are not yet on the market. As an example of this, May mentions the baking market: “How can you prevent staling of bread? As scientists we will first try to understand what happens during the aging of bread and subsequently identify technical concepts to contribute to a solution. Improving the shelf life of bread avoids waste and is a small though relevant example of how science can change the world.”
The entire chain
The science is complex, but can be unraveled step by step. May: “In the end, the answer to the question ‘why do consumers buy a certain product?’ remains difficult to answer. A product needs to deliver perfectly what consumers are looking for – but consumers cannot clearly define in a technical way what they are looking for. It is a mixture of feelings, ethical preferences, perception, health aspects, taste, price, appearance, texture, source, eco footprint, and so on. Why did energy burning drinks fail? Why do certain ‘soy dairy’ products become popular, while others don’t? It is not a single element, but always the sum of all elements that together adds value to a product in the eye of the consumer.”
The entire chain, from IP and Regulatory Affairs experts to fermentation specialists and many other scientists, including those at the Applied Biochemistry (ABC) department, needs to connect and collaborate in project teams to answer the challenge. May: “For us scientists it comes down to the same issue as for all links in the chain: how can we develop products that provide added value to our customers and to the end consumers?”