Innovation is key to any company’s growth, so it’s no surprise that the world’s largest food company invests heavily in research into science and food nutrition. How is the money spent? Mark Rowe talked exclusively to Nestlé’s Dr Johann Ubbink.

Dr Johan Ubbink, a senior research scientist at the Nestlé Research Centre for Food and Life Sciences in Lausanne, is responsible for background research work on food science that enables the company to develop innovative products. “Our key objectives are scientific advances in food and science nutrition which help to create products that give enjoyment and satisfaction to consumers and, increasingly, help them maintain a nutritionally balanced and healthy diet,” he told

Many of the food giants have reduced their basic research activities during the past decade, though Dr Ubbink believes this is now changing. “I feel the pendulum is slowly starting to swing back,” he said. “A lot of industries realise they need to get back to these activities – basic research in food science and nutrition is essential if you want to maintain a long-term leading edge in product development.”

One of the most exciting areas for Dr Ubbink is the change driven by the molecular and supramolecular (described by some as nanoscale) properties of food ingredients and nutrients. In the past, the main emphasis in the food industry was on product development from the perspective of raw materials; now the emphasis is increasingly shifting to defined product properties and benefits. “This essentially reversed way of looking at product development is difficult to do if you don’t have the fundamental knowledge,” he said.

The humble chocolate cake illustrates this shift. In the past, food scientists knew what ingredients they needed to make the cake; now they can start from the other end of the production chain and decide what properties the chocolate cake should have – the type of texture, and also the nutritional value, though Dr Ubbink is at pains to point out that it is unlikely you would ever produce a “healthy” chocolate cake that was truly good for you. “Some foods you really consume for indulgence,” he said.

“A lot of the questions we are posing ourselves relate to the molecular and supramolecular properties of food,” he said. “We are trying to understand the way that food molecules form structures with specific properties.” One aspect of this approach relates to what food scientists call the ‘bioavailability’ of nutrients. For example, the way in which a nutrient such as an antioxidant is absorbed – or not absorbed – by the human body depends strongly on its physical state and its interaction with the food matrix.  Scientists now study this nutrient in relation to its physical state and learn how it needs to be incorporated into the food matrix in order to secure the desired nutritional effect.

The study of food at nanoscale and molecular levels also enables scientists to look at encapsulation materials, used in the delivery of active ingredients, such as carbohydrates and control the way in which they pack at the molecular level and influence barrier properties. “We can do certain things that we couldn’t do before, and we realise why certain foods do what they do when we do things to them,” said Dr Ubbink.

In an exclusive interview, he made it clear that such was manipulation far removed from the notion of “nanotechnology”. He said: “Nanotechnology is about new materials. What we’re doing is looking at molecules that we already have in food and we are steadily learning how to control them. I think we are really at the beginning of the opportunities that this presents. It’s important for people to realise that foods have been changing during most of human history – our food consumption 200 years ago, and even 50 years ago, was completely different to today.”

Such technology looks certain to have significant implications for the confectionery sector. “There are industry-wide moves to control the taste of confectionery while keeping the fats and carbohydrates at satisfactory levels or minimising them,” said Dr Ubbink.

Yet food science needs to balance this with the fact that confectionery has to encapsulate a ‘feelgood factor’. “It’s clear that people like to indulge,” said Dr Ubbink. “If I eat chocolate I want to have the full chocolate impact, so at that moment perhaps I don’t worry too much about the health aspects. However, it is increasingly recognised that chocolate ingredients such as polyphenols have a beneficial effect on human health when consumed in the right dosage and in the proper food matrix.”

Challenges remain. As Dr Ubbink points out, some parts of society have little interest in food, other than to buy it cheaply and eat it. “What we’ve really see over the past decades is that some people are prepared to spend less and less of their income on food – they want it to be cheaper,” he said. “They could have more interest in the quality aspects of food – that could enable the food field to come up with more innovations. There’s a role for food appreciation in our lives and as part of our cultures. The whole food field benefits from that – it makes society more interesting as a whole.”