As unremarkable as it may look, the supercritical melt-micronization equipment has revolutionized the production of margarine. At the heart of this work is Eckhard Flöter. He has already obtained 14 patents for this relatively new process, during which supercritical CO2 is used to spray a liquefied fat mixture through a nozzle. “This creates very small crystals which are more effectively dispersed throughout the product than is normally the case, enabling healthier product compounds,” explains Flöter. This equipment is a recent addition to the labs at the Chair of Food Process Engineering and is unique in the academic world. Flöter’s new plans for this equipment include simplifying the complex process of making chocolate and creating new sophisticated perceptions that stimulate different senses.
The labs conduct research into starch, sugar and fats. High-performance liquid chromatography is used, among other things, to analyze the composition of fats, oils or waxes. Currently, Maria Scharfe is investigating beeswax and sunflower wax. “By conducting an analysis, we are able to discover the structures of waxes as well as their properties,” she explains. The goal of her research is to use waxes to create rapeseed and sunflower oils sufficiently viscous or solid to allow them to function like fats in the production of baked goods and thus replace the unhealthy fats in baking margarine.
Myrofora Kyrimlidou also works with fats. The rapidly rotating drum of her decanter centrifuge separates suspensions into solid and liquid components based on their density. The decanter centrifuge also includes a spiral conveyor with a slightly differential speed of rotation. The centrifugal forces cause solids to accumulate on the walls of the drum, which are then transported to the “exit” of the machine by the rotating spiral conveyor. “I use the decanter centrifuge to separate solid, crystallized and liquid triglycerides, the molecular components of fats and oils,” explains Kyrimlidou. In industrial contexts, this process of separation is conducted on a large scale using palm oil and forms the basis of the diverse functionality of palm oil fractions. However, the current process is lengthy and delivers suboptimal separation results.
Dr. Marco Ulbrich uses gel permeation chromatography coupled with a laser-light distribution detector to analyze the molecular composition of starch. “Mainly modified starch is used in foods, as native starch as found in nature does not function as required. Modification means that the molecular structure is altered. Understanding the link between molecular structure, processing conditions and product characteristics enables a much more effective and precise use of starch,” says Ulbrich. This is something that both producers of starch and the food production industry are equally interested in.
Using the pilot crystallization equipment, the researchers are able to reproduce industrial production processes and conduct research into a number of areas, including the effects on the crystallization and quality of sugar resulting from using less energy throughout the various production phases. In addition to examining the effects of non-sugar substances from beets or sugar cane, Dr. Karl Schlumbach has also recently been involved in developing new sugar products, such as a sugar that provides the same taste even when the amount of sugar present in the foodstuff is reduced by 40 percent.
“The premises for healthy eating today are less carbohydrate, less sugar, less fat. These are the very ingredients we work with in my chair. We want to develop food that is more nutritional and health supporting, that tastes good and can be produced efficiently in terms of resources. Application-based work and basic research go hand in hand. We examine how starch, sugar, fats and oils crystallize, aggregate and interact with each other at microscopic and molecular levels. This enables us to make new discoveries which benefit both the supply of raw materials and the development of new processes in food production.”
“I am investigating how the inefficient industrial batch processes currently in use can be transformed into efficient continuous processes. Unfortunately, our first process design, entrainment fractioning, which uses finely dispersed cold water droplets to crystallize the fat on and then separate these fat-laden droplets in the decanter centrifuge, has not yet proved competitive.”
“Oleogels are immobilized oils in 'sponge structures'. Our goal is to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases by replacing saturated fats with oleogels. I investigate the significance of the properties of oils for these gels. This is a factor which until now has been ignored. My findings on the aggregation of nanofibrils are not only scientifically important; they also enable the development of healthy products capable of withstanding production processes and distribution.
“We are also interested in how a gel really functions with regard to starch. Advanced analysis methods increasingly enable us to unravel the relationship between the characteristics of saccharides, three-dimensional networks and structural parameters. In addition to chromatography, targeted, enzyme-based preprocessing plays a key role here."