T he gulf between fundamental scientific research and a new chocolate bar on the shelf at Tesco can seem large, but there are mechanisms in place to help food manufacturers bridge the gap.
One such knowledge transfer scheme that has hitherto tended to hide its light under a bushel is the Food & Health Network (www.foodandhealthnetwork.com: a forum for collaboration between scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) and industry. Headed up by Professor Tim Brocklehurst (pictured below), a microbiologist with particular expertise in exploiting transcriptomic methods, the network is open to all food companies, regardless of size.
"We do conduct a lot of fundamental research at IFR and we are plugged into several European and international research projects," says Brocklehurst. "But a lot of our work is also immediately applicable to industry."
One headline-grabbing example is Dr Martin Wickham's model gut (pictured top left), which mimics the physical and biochemical processes of human digestion in the stomach and small intestine. This has attracted significant interest from the food industry, from companies wanting to test the efficacy of weight-management ingredients before launching expensive clinical trials, to those researching the survival of probiotics in the gut or looking at nutrient release. The model gut is now providing a service to industry.
Currently, the Food & Health Network has four 'expertise clusters', covering plants, food and health; food allergy; predictive microbiology and risk analysis; and co-product exploitation. However, new clusters will be set up if there is interest from industry and appropriate expertise at IFR to take the research forward.
Typically, a cluster starts with a conference or seminar over a couple of days in which subject experts will share the latest science in the field. After that, cluster members (food companies, regulators, government departments and academics) with an interest will meet periodically.
What happens as clusters evolve depends on the topic. Sometimes clusters can result in LINK projects (part funded by the UK government) or even major EU projects, while others might prompt smaller confidential research projects with individual cluster members or, in some cases, PhD studentships. "Clearly there is a cost to confidential research," says Brocklehurst. "But membership to the network itself is free." But doesn't this mean that, in practice, only the big boys get in on the action? No, he insists: "A quarter of our network members are SMEs."
Cluster 1: Co-product exploitation
This transforms food waste or 'co-products' such as vegetable trimmings or spent grain into added value ingredients. It has prompted several spins offs, from the EU REPRO project to a confidential attempt to develop valuable peat replacements from co-products.
Cluster 2: Predictive microbiology
Improving understanding of how micro-organisms behave and how software can help predict their activity. Spin-offs include ComBase, which makes predictive tools available via web-based software. Workshops cover applying predictive microbiology to hypothetical product development issues.
Cluster 3: Food allergy
IFR is leading an EU project on food allergy called EuroPreval, and draws on expertise in fundamental immunology and the mechanisms of food allergy; tracing allergenic food components; and the impact of food processing and structure on allergenicity.
Cluster 4: Plants, food and health
Examining how compounds derived from plants can tackle chronic disease.