Food engineering, food chemistry, and food microbiology are the three disciplinary pillars governing the processing of value-added food products. Working together, these disciplines are capable of revolutionizing our current food system. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a food-related issue without consideration of all three fields.
Our focus is on food engineering, which is the application of physics to food systems and the physical attributes of food products. Food engineers have helped develop several advanced thermal (e.g., ohmic and microwave heating), nonthermal (e.g., high pressure and pulsed electric fields) technologies, and gas treatments (e.g., ozone and chlorine dioxide), many of which have become commercial processes, and have assisted industry in meeting various food safety challenges. For example, meat and seafood processors utilize high-pressure processing to inactivate pathogens in meat and oysters.
Although there is significant federal investment in empirical food safety, research on improving the understanding of the physics associated with all scales of the food structure has received limited attention. There is increasing evidence that a basic understanding of the physical structure at the surface and within a food product can provide the critical information needed in meeting current food safety challenges. Research into the physics of food include many emphasis areas, including physical properties data, required in the design of food process technologies. The complexities of the transport phenomena and flow properties within food matrices and at interface demand more in-depth investigation. Quantitative engineering principles can also be used to compare energy and water utilization and identify sustainable food manufacturing practices.
There are many opportunities to include the physical approach used by food engineers to address food safety challenges. The current focus on specific pathogens and internalization mechanisms does not accommodate the quantitative dimensions of physics. Recent foodborne disease outbreaks in produce, including E. coli O157:H7 in leafy greens and Listeria in bean sprouts and cantaloupes, illustrate that solutions may be independent of the specific pathogen involved in the outbreak. The produce safety challenge is broader than a microbiological analysis of internalization. Complete elimination of contamination in the field is not possible, since production systems are open to many different contamination routes (e.g., animals, insect, and birds). Surfaces of these food products have crevices larger than the typical 1 micron dimension of most bacteria, and internalization via air, water, or animal-borne sources is inevitable. An analysis of the physical characteristics of the surface is needed to complement microbiological analyses.
While the microbiological dimensions of food safety continue to receive attention, the broader concepts of food quality cannot be ignored. Consumer acceptance, nutrition, and wholesomeness are parts of food quality, which is a primary economic driver for the food industry. Successful food products in the marketplace must provide a competitive advantage and deliver the broader dimensions of quality. While significant investment has been allocated to nutritional and behavioral aspects of foods, the actual delivery of food quality depends on process design and the engineering associated with equipment and systems.
Health and wellness are receiving increased attention as a part of food science and technology. As problem solvers, food engineers will continue to play an important role in understanding how processed foods impact long-term health and well-being of a growing population. Food engineering will have a significant role in reducing diet-related diseases: obesity, heart disease, cancer, and many others. The concept of food quality needs to be revised to include physical attributes to be evaluated with a focus on delivery of bioactive components to appropriate sites during metabolism of the food. Examples of specific research topics are the development of food processes that maximize retention of natural and fresh attributes, matrices that modulate caloric content, and increased retention or benefits of bioactive compounds.
In summary, it’s evident that food engineering has a significant role in addressing the challenges of food safety and quality. Tackling the challenges of food safety, quality, health, and wellness requires a balanced approach involving chemical, microbiological, and physical analyses. The tools of food engineering can quantify forces that govern chemical, microbial, and physical changes in foods and offer practical solutions to industry.
Acknowledgments: Based on USDA NC1023 “Engineering for Food Safety and Quality” committee discussion on strengthening food engineering research that took place as a part of 2011 annual meeting held at University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI.
V.M. (Bala) Balasubramaniam, Ph.D., a Professional member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Food Science and Technology ( [email protected] ) and Sudhir K. Sastry, Ph.D., a Professional member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210 ( [email protected] ). Dennis R. Heldman, Ph.D., a Professional member of IFT, is Principal, Heldman Associates, Mason, OH 45040 ( [email protected] ).