VTT’s food projects are aimed at more efficient use of ingredients and increasing the use of food industry by-products in animal feed and food. Finnish wood is also of interest; ingredients have been found in wood that can be used to improve the quality of food products.
Protein self-sufficiency has become a national concern. VTT and the Natural Resources Institute Finland drew up a roadmap in 2014 that looked for a way to double Finland’s protein self-sufficiency from its current level of 15 per cent.
The task requires improvements in the primary sector of the economy, more efficient and versatile animal feed applications, and increasing the use of plant protein for human nutrition. VTT is currently coordinating three international protein projects to tackle these challenges.
The projects focus on making more versatile use of plant protein and food industry by-products.
“We have been investing in more efficient use of food industry by-products for long. By-products that are available in large quantities include, for example, brewers’ spent grain (BSG), wheat bran and various kinds of oilseed press cakes, most of which are still currently used as animal feed. That is good as well, but with correct processing, considerably more valuable ingredients than animal feed could be separated from these by-products that could even be used in human food,” explains Research Professor Kaisa Poutanen.
The difficulty in making use of plant protein lies in both separating ingredients with a sufficiently high concentration of protein and improving functional properties. The properties expected of protein in food products include foaminess, emulsification and high solubility.
“We are particularly focused on developing physical and biotechnological methods for modifying protein products for different applications. Studies are being conducted in cooperation with both Finnish and European businesses and research institutions. The spectrum of food product applications ranges from bread and pasta to yoghurt, smoothies and snacks,” Poutanen says.
Bringing grain ingredients to market
On a global scale, grains are the most important source of energy. Whole grain crops also have scientifically proven health benefits.
The export of Finnish oat was accelerated last year, when Fazer Mills licensed VTT’s technology that it can use to separate healthy ingredients, such as beta-glucan, protein and oat oil, from oats. These oat ingredients open up new opportunities for the dairy, dietary supplement, snacks and cosmetics industries.
“Ingredients from wheat, barley and rye can also be separated to make new, healthy products. It is only prudent to make full use of all these ingredients,” Kaisa Poutanen says.
One way is to separate protein using eutectic solvents. A new, efficient and simple technique developed by VTT enables the use of agrobiomass by-products and especially BSG proteins to produce high-quality feed protein. The next step is to investigate whether the protein concentrate produced using the technique can also be used in food products.
“In addition to protein enrichment, we are developing dry fractioning techniques that are more economic and environmentally friendly. Dry fractions are not always completely pure, but they can be further processed into good food ingredients. We also do a lot of this kind of development work for customers,” Poutanen explains.
The industrial sector is interested in hearing consumers’ views on new sources of protein. An international project was run last year to study how the working-age population and senior citizens perceive the use of oat protein in food products in Finland, Denmark, Germany and Romania. VTT was in charge of the Finnish component of the study.
According to provisional findings, senior citizens have more reservations towards food products enriched with oat protein than do working-age consumers. The results also indicate that, as an additive, oat protein is best suited to familiar products such as grain-based foods. More detailed findings will be published soon.
VTT’s projects are aimed at more versatile use of plant protein and increasing the use of food industry by-products.
Wood to food
Scientists want to make full use of Finnish wood, and one possibility is to break it down into ingredients that can be used to modify the characteristics of food products and even to make products healthier.
“We at VTT have shown that yoghurt can be thickened using xylan, which is not only affordable but also healthy,” Poutanen explains.
In addition to birch xylan, VTT is investigating the use of microfibrillated cellulose and lignin, which is an organic compound that binds wood fibres in food products.
“People in Finland used to eat bark bread for energy. Our aims now are completely different, such as reducing the use of sugar or modifying textures.”
Apples show the way
Poutanen points at a poster on the wall of her office, which depicts the Mediterranean diet.
“All the foods that people should eat the most, which are at the bottom of the triangle, are fruit and vegetables, and processed foods are at the top. However, processing is not always bad, and often it is indispensable.”
What is it that makes apples and carrots healthy?
“Their water content is 90 per cent, and the rest is made up of fibres, sugars and nutrients. How could we make water chewable?” Poutanen wonders.
“Apples are actually foamy in texture. We have been trying to find a way to mimic this ingenious natural package of water, energy, sugars, fibres and nutrients to make products that would appeal to consumers. We are working on these ideas, and our goal is to develop products that contain less sugar and more water,” she explains.
Kaisa Poutanen. Photo: Vesa Tyni.
Focus on chewing
Crunchy cereal, soft white bread, rye bread that combines a crispy outside and a gooey middle – it is not just flavour, but also the texture of food that has an effect on its perceived quality and enjoyability. Texture also determines the chewing process that kick-starts digestion: A smoothie does not stay in the mouth for long, while hard and tough textures need to be chewed carefully.
What significance does chewing have for the breakdown and subsequent digestion of food textures and the resulting sensation of fullness?
VTT is currently studying the impact of food textures on chewing, and their significance in the experience of eating. The study participants were asked to chew bread, fluffy and crispy snacks, solid and crunchy crisps, and smoothies. The activity rates of their chewing muscles were measured for information about how texture affects the chewing process. The effect of textures that require different kinds of chewing was also studied with regard to the sensation of fullness between meals.
The study is part of a dissertation by VTT research scientist Saara Pentikäinen, and the results are being analysed at the moment.