Imperial College London

Imperial’s food for thought in 2019

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Crickets on a plate

What better accompaniment to festive feasting and your impending food coma than a roundup of tasty stories from 2019?

Sit back as Imperial serves up some festive food for thought, featuring unusual stuffing, strange pudding, dried cricket snacks, and food sensors. After all, ‘tis the season to be jolly and enjoy all the treats Christmas has to offer!

Grub's up

bugs on a plateIn the 1800s, lobsters were considered the food of slaves and prisoners; a poor person’s food. Likewise sushi, before it was trendy, was once looked down upon. So why are these foods now considered delicacies around the world - and could the same PR makeover happen for insects?

There are tangible benefits to incorporating insects into food: they use less land, energy and water, and produce fewer greenhouse gases than traditional meats like chicken and beef. They’re also better for us: they are rich in protein, fat, and energy and can be a significant source of vitamins and minerals.

Through her latest research, Dr Tilly Collins from Imperial’s Centre for Environment Policy found that if we are serious about getting people to eat insects regularly, then the less visible they are the better – think powdered crickets for a protein boost. It also seems the younger generation is more comfortable with the idea of minced insect burgers than older people. After all, who doesn’t love an alternative to high-sugar snacks?

Read more: Eating insects makes sense. So why don’t we?

Feelin' fresh

little girl holding nose next to a fridge to indicate that food inside has gone offWorldwide, one third of the food produced – equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes – is thrown away each year. Discarding food that’s safe to eat, at supermarkets and at home, is a contributing factor, as 60 per cent of discarded food that has passed the use-by date is perfectly safe to eat.

So what if our smartphones could detect whether food has actually gone off? Researchers at Imperial have set out to combat this imbalance with a new sensor that can detect spoilage gases in meat and fish products. Using eco-friendly gas sensors printed on cellulose paper, they measuring the difference in conductance of the cellulose paper as the gasses in the food packaging changed.

These types of sensors were more accurate and cheaper than the ones currently on the market, and can combined with a series of microchips that lets consumers read the data from their own smartphone. The researchers hope to expand the applications of the sensors to the detection of air quality, disease markers in breath, and chemicals in agriculture.

Read more: Food freshness sensors could replace ‘use-by’ dates to cut food waste

Running water

Hand holding the blob of liquid, OhooLondon Marathon runners got a fun surprise at mile 23 this year. Their Lucozade Sport was provided in 25ml Ooho seaweed ‘bubbles’ made by the Skipping Rocks Lab, an innovative sustainable packaging startup founded by Imperial alumni Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia.

Ooho is an edible, tasteless and biodegradable membrane made from plants and seaweed, filled with a drink of your choice. The capsules have double membranes made with just two ingredients: sodium alginate (a natural thickener made from algae), and calcium chloride. By combining the two, the team created a transparent gel wall that is just solid enough to hold liquid inside.

Ooho is designed to be edible but will naturally decompose in just six weeks - a bit less than the 400 years for a regular plastic bottle. Also, the materials are much cheaper than plastic, making it the perfect sustainable way to cut down waste.

Read more: “Edible water bottles” developed by Imperial start-up to be trialled at Marathon

Meaty minds

student pitching meaty minds idea to panelOne way to reduce the environmental impact of meat consumption is to grow it in a lab, but the growth medium that’s used is very expensive and is harvested from pregnant cows. Both factors make lab grown meat unsustainable as an ethical, long term alternative.

In 2019, a group of Imperial students won £7,000 to tackle this problem.

Every year the Faculty of Natural Sciences Make a Difference Competition challenges three teams of undergraduate students to develop low-cost solutions to problems that impact society. Student team MultusMedia won the first place £7,000 prize for their technology to reduce the cost of lab-grown meat, with an animal-free culture medium based on genetically engineered yeast. The yeast produces mammalian growth factors eliminating the need for expensive and unethical growth mediums altogether.

The team’s aim is to bring down the cost of cultured meat and tackle the unsustainability of using livestock to produce meat – “we want to provide products people know and love, without the environmental impact,” the team said.

Read more: Student team tackling unsustainability of meat industry win Imperial competition

Chemical kitchen

student and teacher making foodStudents at the Department of Chemistry will receive crash course in culinary science in 2020, as Imperial teamed up with gastronomy expert Jozef Youssef to provide a unique new module, “Introduction to Culinary Practice”.

Working with food increasingly uses instruments taken directly from the world of chemical research, like centrifuges, rotary evaporators, and sonic homogenisers. Imperial’s Professor Roger Kneebone, who helped add the unconventional module to the curriculum said: "the Chemical Kitchen will encourage social cohesion amongst students, developing a sense of collegiality rather than competition within a safe environment."

Students can benefit from practising meticulous planning and detailed observation skills, which the department hopes will encourage appreciation of the parallels between the practice of chemistry and a range of other activities. The researchers say seeing this overlap in a practical setting could motivate students to thrive as experimental scientists.

Read more: Chemistry students get a taste of being cooking maestros in ‘Chemical Kitchen'

Still peckish? Here’s some more food for thought:

Promising peanut trial offers hope for children with life-threatening allergy

New hormone injection aids weight loss in obese patients

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Sara Knudsen

Sara Knudsen
Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication

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