Food science draws from – and contributes to – numerous sciences, technology disciplines, and industrial approaches. A relatively new field, food science matured alongside advanced microscopy methods such as atomic force and scanning electron microscopy. Microscope technology progress has led to a food science revolution in the last few decades.
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What is Food Science?
Food science is wide-ranging in scope, starting with the overlap between nutrition and agricultural science and extending beyond food safety and food processing to encompass food technology and marketing.
The field brings multiple scientific disciplines together, often under one corporate or institutional roof. Food science laboratories can have researchers from backgrounds as diverse as chemistry, physics, physiology, microbiology, biochemistry, chemical engineering, programming, and nanotechnology.
Food scientists develop products, design production and quality assurance (QA) systems, select packaging materials, and conduct shelf-life tests, customer feedback, and microbiological and chemical studies.
In nearly all of these activities and processes, some form of microscopy will be needed.
Microscopy in Food Science
Food scientists use many microscopy and imaging techniques to explore food structures and enhance the quality or usefulness of food products.
Microscopy provides quantitative data for analyzing food microstructures, which influence food products’ nutritional content, chemical and microbiological stability, texture, chemical (cooking) properties, transportation properties, and taste.
Chemists, biochemists, nutritionists, microbiologists, or engineers use advanced microscopy to learn about food.
With basic understanding, high-resolution microscopy techniques such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM) can help study food’s underlying chemistry. This includes observing proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and water interactions during processing, storage, and preparation.
As well as in cutting-edge research and product development, food scientists use microscopes for production and QA processes. Food scientists can work in regulation on either side of the fence, using microscopes to ensure food products meet strict company, government, or trade-based quality and safety standards.
Food Science is Still Evolving
Food science is a relatively new discipline and is yet to reach full maturity. It has come about mainly in response to the radical change in food processing and consumption that began in North America in the 1950s and has since spread worldwide.
The food industry has shifted from providing only primary ingredients for people to cook at home. Over time, more processed and ready-to-eat products have found their way onto our shelves.
Condiments, frozen meals, factory-packed salads and sandwiches have taken over the grocery store.
However, the demand for convenience food and an ever-increasing range of choices for consumers poses technological challenges. The increasing expectation on producers to process food and package it in a microwavable or ready-to-eat format puts more responsibility on those companies to ensure quality, safety, and nutrition standards are met.
Advanced microscopy techniques such as AFM and SEM help food scientists to create and develop products to meet this demand. Meanwhile, bulk microscopy methods help perform large-scale QA processes with partial automation.
Advanced Microscopy is Revolutionizing Food Science
Advances in microscopy have taken place outside of food sciences for the most part, but food scientists and technologists have adapted new techniques for food applications. Forensic food science uses advanced instrumentation to learn about food products and investigate samples for adulteration or the presence of regulated additives.
As well as AFM and SEM, food science commonly employs advanced methods, including confocal laser scanning microscopy, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and mass spectrometry (MS), for determining molecules’ chemical makeup and location in other food particles.
Food forensics employs electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) and electron spectroscopic imaging (ES) to help investigate foods’ nanostructure. EELS can also be enhanced with transmission electron microscopy (TEM-EELS). These techniques enable scientists to investigate food products’ nanostructures and surfaces and the complex interactions at that scale.
Microscopy at the Cutting Edge of Food Science Research
Latest microscopy techniques have been a critical driver of progress in academic research in food sciences.
Modern food science flourished alongside the revolutionary introduction of modern electron microscopy instrumentation in the 1980s. In particular, SEM contributed to many early breakthroughs in food science.
SEM was applied in an early study of microcapsule systems in 1985. This study introduced new techniques for embedding and microtoming that enabled use of SEM for analyzing fractured capsules’ inner structures. This demonstrated SEM’s potential for food science research, which it has arguably fulfilled in the subsequent decades.
AFM has become more accessible with cheaper instrumentation, simpler or partially automated operation, and minimal sample preparation requirements.
AFM is a non-destructive microscopy technique providing nanoscale resolution. Today's food science research is used for macromolecule and polymer, structure analysis, molecular interaction and manipulation, surface topography, and characterization of food nanoparticles. As a non-destructive method, AFM can also help study processing and spoilage mechanisms at the nanoscale.
References and Further Reading
Aguilera, J.M. (2005). Why food microstructure? Journal of Food Engineering. doi.org/10.1016/j.jfoodeng.2004.05.050.
Critchley, L. (2020). Electron Microscopy and Imaging Methods in Food Science. [Online] AZO Optics. Available at: https://www.azooptics.com/Article.aspx?ArticleID=1732 (Accessed on 12 May 2022).
McGill. What is Food Science? [Online] McGill University. Available at: https://www.mcgill.ca/foodscience/what-food-science (Accessed on 12 May 2022).
Msagati, T.A.M. (2017). Application of Microscopy Techniques in Food Forensics. Food Forensics and Toxicology. doi.org/10.1002/9781119101406.ch13.
Rosenberg, M. (1985). A Scanning Electron Microscopy Study of Microencapsulation. Journal of Food Science. doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1985.tb13295.x.
Taylor-Smith, K. (2020). How is Electron Microscopy and Imaging Methods Used in Food Science Applications? [Online] AZO Materials. Available at: https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=18884 (Accessed on 12 May 2022).
Yang, H. et al. (2007). Application of Atomic Force Microscopy as a Nanotechnology Tool in Food Science. Journal of Food Science. doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00346.x.