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Industry is missing the point when it comes to air, says innovation expert

By Nathan Gray , 20-Mar-2012
Last updated on 20-Mar-2012 at 14:59 GMT2012-03-20T14:59:15Z

There's a lot of gas about using natural and sustainable ingredients in foods, but is industry throwing one free and natural ingredient out of the window without considering its potential?

Large-scale aeration of foods is a well-known and well-used technique in certain product areas, but air has a lot more to offer as small –scale functional ingredient, according to the head of food innovation at Leatherhead Food Research.

Speaking with FoodNavigator at the recent NutraFormulate conference and exposition, Dr Wayne Morley floated the idea that the use of gasses in foods can provide important sensory effects even at smaller levels that cannot be perceived by consumers.

“Air is well known for its uses in things like mousses and cream and a whole range of other products, but I think in those cases it’s obvious that the air is present because you can see the air bubbles.”

“But, I think that using air more as a functional ingredient at a fairly small level has potential – maybe in a situation where the consumer doesn’t know it’s there,” he said indicating that the use of air or other gasses at small levels – of around 5% by volume – “can be used to alter the texture and flavour delivery of foods.”

Morley, who is a veteran in new product development having spent 22 years working with as a technical food developer at Unilever, said he believes that air “is one of those ingredients that is often seen as a filler, or as an obvious ingredient when present in large amounts,” but in small amounts he believes the use of gasses in foods is ‘undervalued’.

Exploiting air

But is using air in foods really a breeze? “I think there needs to be more work done to exploit it as an ingredient fully, but I think the potential is there,” said Morley.

 “Of course as an ingredient air is free – though you might need some technology to incorporate the air in an efficient manner.”

“Indeed at Leatherhead we are looking at the use of different gasses as well. It doesn’t have to be normal air, it could be nitrogen or carbon dioxide or other mixtures of gasses that if introduced in a particular way I think can have potential for altering a number of sensory characteristics.”

As an example, Morley explained that premium ice cream contains much less air than normal ice cream produced for supermarket sale.

“If you buy a normal tub of ice cream it’s maybe around 50% air by volume, whereas a very high quality ice cream will contain as little as 20%,” said the innovation expert.

“It’s less obvious that the air is in the product, but at that volume it is still playing a very important role in the sensory properties of the product.”

Research

Morley said Leatherhead is also exploring research into how air can be used as an ingredient in a wider range of foods – where the ex-Unilever expert believes its use could help introduce delicate textures, lower fat contents, reduce calorie density, and even induce satiety.

He suggested that gasses could also be used as zero-calorie carrier for flavours and nutrients.

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