IN FOCUS: How UQ’s Food Science Innovation Precinct is feeding the appetite for innovation

Words by Dr Mark Turner, Associate Professor, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences


The truly game-changing leap that we need in the coming years and decades in food innovation simply won’t happen on its own.

At its core, the University of Queensland’s Food Science Innovation Precinct is about taking that leap.

It was born from the need to house and help shape the research of a booming number of students - from undergraduates to doctoral - delving into food sciences.

But the real opportunity, the game-changing leap needed, was a place that presented food companies with the chance to engage, observe and immerse parts of their business into a facility and atmosphere that is purely about innovation.

The chance for them to work closely with researchers in state-of-the-art facilities and to dive deeply into some of the challenges they face as they work on feeding increasing populations globally is vital. And we’re one of the few facilities in Australia enabling that.

UQ has a long history of food science. It’s the only university here in the southeast that's been running the subject over many, many years, previously at our Gatton campus about 15 years ago. And it shows in the world rankings.

In the 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities released recently, UQ placed 39th in the world in food science and technology. In Australia, it’s the only university in the top 100 in food science and technology, which paints a picture of the strong history, high quality of food science and technology facilities, academic staff, research staff and students.

But what does this mean when it comes down to the real impact being made in food innovation from ideation to commercialisation?

From healthier leafy greens to food printed by machines

Students, researchers and food companies relish working on industry-relevant issues and it’s because food science is an applied science. For them, it’s not just about fundamental research for the sake of gaining knowledge.

Their goals are about achieving something that makes an impact, either with a company in developing a new product or process, or something that's going to fundamentally change the way parts of the food industry operate.

And it begins with fuelling innovation - the giant leap. We have researchers working with food companies on 3D printing fruits, vegetables and other foods; working on alternative processing technologies; and increasing the shelf life of foods naturally.

One of the big-ticket, industry-changing items is the research on improving the safety of foods, particularly salads and green leafy salad-based products. Some of my research is around developing new ways to control pathogenic bacteria on leafy green vegetables, the bagged salads, so we're working with one of the bag salad producing companies in Brisbane to develop new products in that area.

In a similar vein, something that will probably come out soon will be a probiotic-based bag salad product. So, for example, a bag of baby spinach that contains probiotic bacteria as a new way to get a dose of probiotics, making salads even healthier than they already are.

And the health and process innovations continue. There’s cholesterol-lowering muffins and dairy foods, ultra low-fat cheeses that taste like full-fat cheese, fresher milk produced without heat pasteurisation, speeding up the cheese ripening process and maturing flavour profiles, and many more.

One of the big success stories to come out of UQ’s food sciences labs is PERKii, the probiotic drink that uses a ground-breaking probiotic delivery technology called ProGEL. It’s a world-first (see the video below) and is now in about 400-plus stores throughout Australia.

How food companies are taking a seat at UQ’s table

There is no doubt that the creation of the Food Science Innovation Precinct has enabled an increase in high-quality and deeper, more meaningful engagements with food companies of all sizes.

They're hearing about and wanting access to the new labs and the new facility, and they're more interested in getting involved with the university and tapping into the knowledge economy here with the academic and technical support we can provide.

We've traditionally worked closely with industry, but the precinct has brought a wider variety of industries, different food companies that we hadn’t worked with before, so it's also opened our eyes up to companies that we didn't even know about and broadened our research areas.

Traditionally the companies in Australia have been more focused on production, and the innovation piece was often left aside. That's where UQ has been able to facilitate and enable companies to do more of the innovation and R&D-type activities.

This kind of facility and the promotion of it, along with investment in the sector, will help us move forward and develop these innovations, rather than the companies trying to do it themselves. I think that's where the academics and the research staff will provide the real game-changing value.

Australian consumers have become a lot more interested and more adventurous with foods. If you stand in a supermarket aisle now compared with 20 years ago, it becomes increasingly apparent that keeping up with consumers' demand for new types, more convenient and healthier foods is the real challenge the food industry needs to conquer. And innovation is one of the things that will help them achieve that.

More broadly, food innovation is vital if we’re going to take the giant leap necessary to ensure the world’s increasing population is fed healthy, nourishing food in the years and centuries to come.

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