A to Z of food science

12th September 2022

Food science spans biology, chemistry, microbiology and nutrition to learn more about the food we eat and its impact on our health. We explore some of the key aspects of research going on at the Quadram Institute in this area.

A – Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance, when microbes evolve ways to protect them from antimicrobials, is an increasing threat in the food chain. It makes it difficult to prevent contamination in the food chain by disease-causing microbes like Salmonella.

Our researchers are working to understand how resistant bacteria survive and are transmitted in the food chain.

The company FOLIUM Science and our scientists optimised a technology that can selectively remove disease-causing bacteria from the food chain and reduce the need for antibiotics in rearing livestock.

B – B12

Vitamin B12 is a nutrient essential to our bodies. Vitamin B12 is found in animal food sources such as meat and dairy products. Certain plant-based sources are fortified with vitamin B12.

Our scientists have shown that certain plants can absorb B12 from the soil, and they are investigating if B12 enriched plants can be used to enhance the diets of vegans and vegetarians.

We are working to understand how the gut microbiome makes and uses vitamin B12. We hope that our research will help develop targeted treatments for people with specific low B12 status conditions.

C – Cranberries

Recent scientific research studying cranberries has found that the fruit could improve memory and prevent dementia.

Our scientists with those at UEA studied the benefits of eating the equivalent of a cup of cranberries each day among 50 to 80 year olds. Their results showed that consuming cranberries improved the participants’ memory of everyday events, neural functioning and delivery of blood to the brain.

D – Databanks

We house the Food Databanks National Capability (FNDC) which provides new and updated data and knowledge on food composition and intake.

The data supports nutritional policies, public health and world-leading science. The team uses their expertise to develop new tools and methods for assessing diets and the way food composition data is shared.

E – Exclusion

The concept of competitive exclusion is the idea that two species can’t live in the same space if they are competing for the same resources.

In relation to food, in the 1970s Dr Ella May Barnes pioneered the principle as a method to improve the safety of poultry products. She found how encouraging the development of healthy gut floras in chicks could inhibit the growth of the disease-causing microbe Salmonella.

Dr Ella May Barnes worked as microbiologist at the Institute of Food Research, the precursor to the Quadram Institute. A new building, the Ella May Barnes building on Norwich Research Park has been named in her honour.

F – Fibre

Dietary fibre is the part of plant-based foods that your body can’t digest or absorb. Fibre is important to keep your digestive system healthy.

Our researchers are learning more about how fibre is digested and how we can develop foods that contain more fibre so they are better for our gut and health.

G – Glucosinolates

Glucosinolates are compounds found in certain plant foods such as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and kale.

They contain sulphur which gives them their distinctive smell and taste. When we eat foods with glucosinolates they are broken down into a compound called sulforaphane which has been shown to have health benefits. The compounds can help to “re-tune” metabolism and may help protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer.

We are carrying out research to learn more about the role of glucosinolates in our food and digestion and how they benefit our health.

H – Hunger

An aspect of food science is understanding hunger and how full foods make us feel. The word satiety describes the feeling of fullness from food.

We’re working to understand how different foods affect how full we feel. We’re uncovering the microbial molecules produced by gut bacteria, associated with satiety. The aim of this research is to develop foods that help us feel fuller for longer, to help reduce the impact of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

I – Iron

Iron is an important nutrient in our diet. It is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.

In plant-based diets, it may be harder to get enough iron without meat or dairy. Some foods are good vegan iron sources and other factors affect how much iron we absorb too.

Our researchers are exploring ways of boosting the iron content of plants.

J – Jelly

Jelly is an example of a hydrocolloid, with a mixture of water molecules spread evenly in a matrix of gelatin proteins. Our researchers study the structure and chemistry of food.

Previously, the former Institute of Food Research organised an annual challenge for school pupils to construct the tallest possible jelly, applying knowledge of food physics. Public Engagement is an important aspect of food science, and science in general. We aim to allow wider public dialogue at the national and international level about our research into food and health.

K – Kefir

Kefir is a probiotic product made from fermented milk.

Previously, Quadram Institute researchers have worked with those from Argentina to learn more about how the microbe in kefir is adapted to the specific conditions of the gastrointestinal tract.

L – Legumes

The seeds of leguminous plants give us pulses, a food source with positive benefits for our health. Pulses are full of minerals, nutrients and vitamins.

As legumes are nitrogen-fixing and can grow without fertlisier, they are good for the planet as well as our health.  Researchers at the Quadram Institute are working to learn more about pulses’ role in maintaining good health.

M – Microbiology

Microbiology is the study of microorganisms. It is an important aspect of food science.

The microbes that live in gut are important for helping us break down and absorb nutrients from our food. Our researchers are studying more about the interactions between microbes and our food.

Our scientists study the microbes that live in our food, and ones that can cause illness and disease.

N – Nutrition

Nutrition is the way in which an organism uses food to support its life.

Whilst dietary advice benefits most people, there is growing understanding that how individuals respond to different foods can vary significantly. Our research is learning more about this variation to help develop personalised nutrition.

O – Organ on-chip technology

Organ-on-chip technology is small devices that contain living human cells. It allows scientists to learn more about how food is digested in the gut.

The technology mimics the complexity of tissues, offering a potential alternative to animal testing and time-costly clinical trials.

P – Polyphenols

Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant compounds, that have been shown to have health benefits. Anthocyanins are a type of polyphenol and can be found in foods such as berries, vegetables, nuts and wines.

Our researchers have shown that polyphenols can lower levels of “bad cholesterol” and increase levels of “good cholesterol”.

Research suggests that the gut microbiome breaks down polyphenols into smaller compounds and that it is these substances that provide the beneficial effects.

Our researchers are working to understand how consuming food or diets rich in polyphenols deliver health benefits, including the risks of developing diabetes, cardiovascular and liver disease.

Q – Quercetin

Quercetin is a compound found in fruit and vegetables. Research from the Quadram Institute discovered that the compound has anti-inflammatory effects.

Quercetin interacts with cells lining blood vessels that may protect them from damage caused by high glucose spikes. Foods that are high in quercetin are onions, apples, broccoli, berries and tea.

R – Resistant Starch

Resistant starch is starch that is not digested by our bodies. In the large intestine, microbes use it as an energy, so it is important in promoting a healthy gut microbiome.

We are working to learn more about resistant starch, and how to increase the amount in our diet.  Our scientists were part of an interdisciplinary team to discover how a type of wrinkled pea, high in resistant starch, may help control blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

S –Safety

A key aspect of food science is food safety, which works to prevent foodborne illnesses.

We help ensure food safety by studying how microbes evolve, spread, survive and compete in the food chain. This knowledge can be used to develop new ways to reduce foodborne illness and safely develop new foods.

Working with the Food Standards Agency and BBSRC, we established the UK Food Safety Research Network. This Network connects food industry, food and health policymakers and academia to collaboratively pursue shared research priorities to protect the UK from foodborne hazards.

T – Trials

Food science can involve clinical trials.

Here at the Quadram Institute we carry out dietary intervention studies and clinical trials with healthy and patient volunteers to learn about how food affects our health.

We have a state-of-the-art Clinical Research Facility together with the UEA and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.  We currently have two food-related clinical studies we are recruiting for:

  • BETA Study – investigating how eating broccoli, when eaten as a soup, affects sugar (glucose) accumulation in the blood of individuals with pre-diabetes
  • GlyCarb Study – understanding how different carbohydrate-rich meals affect blood sugar levels in healthy individuals aged 18 and over

U – Undergraduates

An important part of food science is training future food scientists.

Many researchers at the Quadram Institute host undergraduate students to help them develop valuable skills for their future scientific careers. An example is the Oxford University Summer Internship programme, which gives undergraduates opportunities to gain experience of food science, among other opportunities.

We often host students from the University of East Anglia too.

V – Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is when crops are grown in layers on top of one another indoors. It is one way to make agriculture more sustainable and still supply produce year-round.

Our researchers are part of a collaborative project developing state-of-the-art hydroponic systems for growing a range of different food plants in a domestic setting. The PERNUG project aims to bring personalised nutrition into the home through kitchen gardens that grow produce to match individual dietary needs

W – Wheat

Wheat is the most widely grown cereal crop.

Together with the John Innes Centre, we are working to improve the health impact of wheat. By understanding how variation in wheat starch genes affect starch structure and digestibility in the grain, we aim to design wheat that is digested slower.

X – Xanthan gum

Xanthan gum is a compound used in foods as a thickening agent, emulsifier and stabiliser to stop ingredients from separating.

Plant-based milks often contain gums like xanthan gum. Our researchers are studying how plant-based milks are digested and how gums affect this. They found that gums in soy-based milk products could change the rate at which proteins are digested.

Y – Yeast

Yeast is a microorganism used to make foods such as bread and beer.

Through anaerobic respiration it produces carbon dioxide and ethanol which gives bread it’s rise and beer it’s alcohol.

At the Quadram Institute, we’re home to the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, which maintains a huge diversity of strains of yeast and provides commercial services, including to brewers and bakers.

Z – Zoonosis

Foodbourne zoonotic disease are caused by the consumption of food or water contaminated with disease-causing microbes. They enter the body in the gastrointestinal tract, where symptoms often occur first.

Here at the Quadram Institute we carry out world-leading research into common causes of zoonosis such as Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella to help keep food safe.