Food and Water

Food & Water

With the increase in global population food shortages, sustainable agriculture and mitigating drought are becoming increasingly prevalent societal challenges. Understanding our food at the molecular level could provide insights to help us improve global health and wellbeing in the future. It allows us to make nutritional decisions and recommendations with a wealth of evidence, from the atomic through to the microscopic scale. Equally, better understanding of the properties of water will help ensure an everlasting supply, while also giving us a glimpse into the mysteries of the Universe, for example painting a picture of planets where water has been detected. Understanding the interaction between food and its environment is also important for considering the safety of foods – for example, the transfer of potential contaminants from packaging to food.

Neutrons are well suited to revealing new knowledge about food thanks to their unique ability to interact with hydrogen atoms. Water and critical food groups including fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and sugars are composed largely of these, allowing us to measure anything from the saturation of fatty acids to the crispiness of bread crust. Neutron technology is an ideal technique for studying the multicomponent systems that are typical of edible substances.

A deeper look at dairy

Dairy products are an interesting topic for neutron science, given their wide variety of unique properties such as the calcium balance in milk, water dynamics, fusion of micelles in cheeses, and the characteristic clotting of yogurt using lactic-acid producing bacteria. The traditional process of yogurt-making has been analysed with neutrons, establishing the biochemical process of protein clotting which could help future research to extend the shelf-life and improve the freshness of products. Applied to other foods, neutrons analysis could generate insights to help reduce food waste and improve the sustainability of the dairy industry. Read more.

Unlocking the secrets of water

The giants of our solar system, Neptune and Uranus, have interiors composed primarily of water, but the exact arrangement of the substance is a mystery. By using neutrons to explore the behaviour of water whilst mimicking the extreme conditions in these distant worlds, scientists have identified some of the numerous varieties of ice forms that may form the cores of these planets. Expanding our knowledge of the properties of water under the extreme pressures such as those in space also improves our characterisation of the liquid in general in the more familiar forms that we experience every day here on Earth. Read more.

Observing proteins at work

Proteins are biological molecules found in all living cells. As well as being a critical food group for human intake, they also lead the breakdown and metabolism process of food once it is inside the body. Neutron science is ideal for studying fragile biological structures such as proteins, as they do not damage the samples. Neutrons allow researchers to visualise how the protein latches onto its substrate, providing a deeper understanding of metabolic processes such as how we acquire energy from sugar molecules in cells. Gaining a detailed knowledge of how food is processed, from visible digestion down to the molecular level using neutrons, may help us to make better nutritional choices in the future, tailoring diets to an exact understanding of how our bodies function. Read more.

Further reading

Neutron chefs, TU Delft

Early Science: Water, ESS

Neutrons can observe proteins at work, MLZ