Science and nutrition offer us much food for thought

As a physicist and former antenna engineer, I spent a large part of my early career in the defence and telecommunications sectors. A desire to broaden my horizons meant that I took my career in a different direction and? later qualified as a patent attorney.

This sees me giving advice on intellectual property, particularly on all things physics-related, and working with some of the latest home-grown inventions and innovations can be fascinating. I love that my cases can cover a diverse range of areas from electronics and medical devices to cleantech, telecommunications, optical technologies, software and more.

There’s one arena that I rarely venture into, and that’s food and drink. However, that could all change. Science and food certainly don’t sit separately, especially in today’s nutrition-conscious society. Companies are increasingly seeking to innovate and reformulate, for example, by lowering fat, sugar or salt, one of the most high-profile being Scotland’s own Irn Bru which famously changed its age-old recipe recently. This means that the sector is rapidly becoming a real growth area when it comes to IP.

So naturally this got me thinking about IP around physics in food.

There’s no denying there’s a booming interest in this field, as is evidenced by the relatively recent creation of the Physics in Food Manufacturing Group, which held its first- ever conference in Edinburgh.

Organised by the Institute of Physics, and held at the University of Edinburgh, physicists across industry and academia looked at today’s food manufacturing challenges.

Prof Mike Cates from the University of Cambridge explored ways to improve the flowability of dense suspensions, which can cause problems such as clogging equipment. Dr Bill Frith from Unilever’s R&D team looked at the microstructure of ice cream, while Prof Tim Foster from the University of Nottingham discussed ingredient functionalities.

I loved the talk by Dr Beccy Smith from Mondelez who discussed the physics of chocolate, looking at everything from moulds to setting temperatures, and the complexity and importance of producing good computer models of chocolate!

The packed programme was tremendously interesting, but of particular interest for me were the discussions around sensing, imaging and monitoring. I was keen to explore the ways in which my expertise from other sectors could be applied to this.

Tim Kelf of Buhler UK delivered a talk on ‘The Physics of Optical Sorting in the Food Industry’, discussing the various reasons for using optical sorting. This technology assesses colour to ascertain if something is ripe, or to sort the misshapen from the correctly shaped. It can also be used to identify items that shouldn’t be there, like stones hidden in grain or even snails in our peas!

Some of the techniques being used for optical sorting were familiar to me from other fields such as medical imaging, which requires shape recognition and drawing distinctions between things that look very similar.

It was fascinating to see techniques such as ultrasound, hyper- and multi-spectral imaging and neutron imaging being applied in the food domain. I hadn’t considered some of the ways in which additive manufacturing (2D or 3D printing) could be applied in food until I saw the talk from Richard Claridge of PA Consulting.

It’s fantastic to see Scotland host such an important event allowing the sharing of expertise, and bringing large UK and international companies and universities together. What’s more, food in physics is a broad topic and the conference allowed people with different areas of expertise to get a wider picture of what is happening across the industry – and it’s a truly exciting picture.

This article was first published in The Scotsman.

Kate Adamson

Kate Adamson

Kate is a registered (UK) and European patent attorney with Marks & Clerk LLP.
Kate Adamson

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