The Physics of Food in 2016

Christmas is a time for festivities, family, friends, and food. It has been a turbulent year for many, but in the world of food physics there have been some fascinating developments since our post last year. From knives to mince pies and coffee to cake, 2016 has been a showcase for new discoveries in this exciting and growing field.

At the beginning of the year we had JPhysD’s Physics of Food special issue, which we touched upon last year, that now contains more articles featuring soybean oil and our perception of food. We learned too about the role of saliva lubrication in the sensation of astringency, the dry feeling that we get from red wine, teas and fruit such as persimmons and quinces.

In March it was reported in Laser Physics that a “laser speckle” technique had been used to measure the quality of minimally processed apples. This study should help the food industry in understanding how to better preserve and prepare fruit and vegetables.

The IOP's Physics in food summit. Image © Institute of Physics, All Rights Reserved.

The IOP’s Physics in food summit. Image © Institute of Physics, All Rights Reserved.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) announced a new year-long programme in April aiming to build partnerships between physicists and people working in the food industry. The first event of this programme was the Physics in Food Manufacturing Summit, which attracted both researchers and food industry leaders. The Institute has since produced a report on The Health of Physics in UK Food Manufacturing, which among other things features a number of case studies describing the physics behind crisp production, coffee brewing and more.

For many people, carving through a joint of meat plays a big role in the festivities at this time of the year. In July, Nanotechnology published a study on a new material that can be used to more easily cut through soft biological tissue, inspired by how effortlessly mosquitoes insert their proboscises into human skin. While it may be some time before this research is translated into new kitchen knives and saws in stores, Christmas cooks and budding butchers should watch this space.

Following the IOP’s report on UK food manufacturing, Physics World published its own special issue on the physics of food in November. The issue contains features on the physics of coffee brewing, how physics can help tackle obesity by creating foods that make us feel full and satisfied, and how studying electrically active fluids can help us trim the fat from chocolate – welcome news to those of us (including me) who enjoy the excuse that Christmas gives us to eat far more than we probably should…

Throughout the advent period the IOP has posted several festive facts as part of its #IOPAdventCalendar. Not only have we learned a possible explanation for why Rudolph’s nose is red, but we’ve also discovered how long a mince pie can power your Christmas lights for and how many Christmas puddings it would take to power all the Christmas trees in the UK on Christmas Day. It is perhaps a sobering thought that a single mince pie contains enough energy to power Christmas lights for more than 5 hours, and let’s face it: one mince pie is rarely enough to satisfy even the fussiest of eaters.

I leave you this Christmas on a more uplifting note: February’s announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves was perhaps the biggest news of the year in physics, but did you know that it was in fact unintentionally announced 16 minutes earlier in the day than the world’s news reported it? A research associate at the University of Maryland accidentally tweeted a picture of a cake celebrating the discovery before the official media embargo was lifted. It goes to show that not only does physics play a role in the world of food, but food can itself play a role in physics.

CC-BY logoThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Featured Image of agarose gels taken from Thomas A Vilgis 2015 Rep. Prog. Phys. 78 124602 , © IOP Publishing, All Rights Reserved. Image from IOP’s Physics in Food summit © Institute of Physics, All Rights Reserved.

Categories: Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics

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