Skip to main content
Two scientists watching chemical reaction
Research_

Our research

Research innovation in food products, processes and supply

Our research revolves around three interwoven streams: future food processing; food for health; and innovation in supply chain. These themes address the issues the Australian food industry faces.

A key focus of the centre is translational research with impact, so each stream is designed to address concrete health, commercial challenges society and industry face today. We aim to translate the solutions we develop from laboratory to marketplace to benefit all stakeholders: industry, the University, consumers and society. As well as creating commercial value to the food industry, it is our objective to solve ambitious and large-scale challenges in food and health to achieve maximum positive impact in the community.

Our streams

Food for health

This stream will deliver the knowledge and platform technology needed by the agrifood industry to produce safe, sustainable, nutritious and personalised food products and processes that have a positive impact on human health and wellbeing. Most importantly, the advanced analytics will allow food producers to provide sceptical customers with hard, empirical data on their products.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Andrew Holmes, Associate Professor Laurence Macia
Research Associates: Dr Mark Read, Dr Peter Valtchev, Dr Dale McClure
Collaborators:  Professor David Raubenheimer, Professor Stephen Simpson, Professor Fariba Dehghani, Associate Professor John Kavanagh
Industry partner: Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Company Ltd

The gut microbiota interacts closely with the host and its nutrition, eliciting profound impacts on host health. There is great interest in promoting microbial-dependent health benefits by manipulating the carbohydrate profile of food, especially by increasing dietary fibre content. A key challenge of this is understanding why dietary fibre supplementation does not produce the same microbial response and health benefits in all individuals.

We hypothesise that different types of dietary fibre and the interactive effects with other diet components shape microbial interactions. To test this hypothesis, we functionally categorised carbohydrates and dietary fibre into four types based on host and microbial-accessibility. We are investigating ten carbohydrate profiles of four dietary contexts, enabling us to map the effects of dietary nutrition to the gut microbial composition, diversity and activity, as well as impacts on host physiology, metabolism and immunity. Through this research we will gain a perspective on the microbial and host responses to diet, allowing targeted diet manipulations to modify the gut microbiota and influence host health in personal dietary choices and treatment therapies.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Andrew Holmes, Professor David Raubenheimer
Research Associates: Dr Mark Read, Dr Peter Valtchev, Dr Dale McClure
Collaborators: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Associate Professor John Kavanagh

The gut microbiome is implicated in a growing array of diseases, spanning asthma, allergies, obesity and autoimmunity deficiencies. While the need for interventions that return aberrant 'dysbiotic' communities to symbiotic partners is clear, two principle challenges exist.

Although broad changes in microbiome communities can be observed across health states, exactly which microbes influence health and how, in the context of the wider community, this happens remains unclear. The second challenge is that, despite known sensitivities to diet, a conceptual framework through which we can design rational microbiome interventions remains elusive.

We address these challenges through two complementary approaches:

  • Mining large clinical datasets through machine learning to build statistical models relating the microbiome to health status. These models can be interrogated to identify patterns across microbes, their genomes and metabolites that correlate with health
  • Building computational models as artificial representations of host-diet-microbiome interaction.

These models incorporate the principle mechanistic foundations of this complex system, and serve as a means to test hypotheses and prototype interventions. This research holds promise of transforming clinical practice, facilitating clinical diagnosis and prognosis, and aiding our understanding and management of a host of non-communicable diseases.

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Associate Professor John Kavanagh, Adjunct Professor David Fletcher
Research Associates: Dr Dale McClure and Dr Sina Naficy
Collaborators: Associate Professor Andrew Holmes, Professor David Raubenheimer
International Collaborators: Professor Paul Singh (UC Davis), Associate Professor Gail Bornhorst (UC Davis)

Understanding the complex processes occurring in the digestion system is a considerable challenge which has broad importance in both food processing and medicine. Current methods focus on the use of clinical studies and animal experiments which have some ethical and scientific limitations. The aim of our research in this area is to develop in vitro and computer models of digestion which can be used to supplement animal studies. These models will be used to increase the scientific understanding of digestion processes, as well as in the development of improved food formulations.

Supervisor: Professor Fariba Dehghani
Research Associates: Dr Thi Yen Loan Le,  Dr Sina Naficy, Dr Peter Valtchev
Collaborators: Adjunct Professor David Fletcher, Dr Steven Wise, Dr Majid Ebrahimi Warkiani (UTS), Professor Benjamin Thierry (UniSA)
International collaborators: Professor Ali Khademhosseini (UCLA), Professor Marina De Bernard, Dr Gaia Codolo, Dr Alessandro Zambon (University of Padua, Italy)

This research focuses on developing new microfluidic platforms for addressing the challenges that exist in product development in pre-clinical studies. Animal models are commonly used for this purpose, but their physiological responses are different from human and they usually fail to predict the actual human clinical outcomes. Because of these limitations, developing a successful drug often takes a long time and is expensive. Organ-on-chips are an emergent technology that enables the high throughput screening of bioactive molecules and drugs.

The objective of this project is to design various types of organ-on-chips (skin-on-chip and gut-on-chip) to study the inflammation and examine the effect of active compounds and their anti-inflammatory properties. Specifically looking at the effect of naturally derived compound on wound healing.

A 3D in vitro skin model is manufactured an­­d enables co-culturing of three different cell types, fibroblast, endothelial cells and macrophages.  This human skin-on-chip model is a promising tool to bridge the gap between 2D cell culture methods and clinical trial to study the anti-inflammatory effect of different drugs and natural products.

Additionally, we are designing an intestine-on-chip model for studying the anti-inflammatory efficacy of compounds on the human small intestine. In vitro standard testing of anti-inflammatory nutrients and drugs is often carried out in static conditions or with standardized animal studies, but both lack in mimicking the physiological conditions of the human intestine.

Different cell types will be used to reproduce the intestinal epithelium and the inflammatory response of the immune system. We are using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to develop a cost-effective device that better represents the human in vivo conditions. CFD modelling enables us to establish optimum conditions in the gut-on-chip model to increase cells’ viability and growth. 

Future food processing

We develop innovative approaches in food processing technologies to transform nutrition delivery; maximising food safety, quality and nutritional integrity and repurposing high-value waste. We will trace and measure food products’ micro-structural transformations as they move through the process chain.

Our goals are to discover the constraints and solutions for replacing nutrients lost in food processing; to design sustainable manufacturing processes that minimise food waste and maintain nutritional quality; and to engineer food microstructure to control rate of nutrient absorption and palatability.

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Professor Tim Langrish
Research Associates: Dr Peter Valtchev, Dr Nooshin Koolaji
Collaborators: Associate Professor Qihan Dong, Professor Robyn McConchie
Industry partners: Lang Technologies Pty Ltd, Perfection Fresh Australia, Stahmann Farm, Peanut Company of Australia, and Defugo Bioceuticals

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, every year around a third of food products for human consumption are never eaten, with 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted [1]. Food waste occurs across all of the food life cycles from production, to industrial manufacturing and processing, retail and household stages. In Australia, 3 million tons of food are discarded by commercial enterprises per year [2]. There is an increasing global trend towards the efficient utilisation of agricultural waste biomass to improve food security around the world.

At the Centre for Advanced Food Enginomics (CAFE), we are working with industry partners to develop affordable high-value products from food waste. We use advanced technologies for extraction and purification of active compounds from various waste sources, while also developing standard biological assays for assessing the bioactivity of these compounds.

Examples include:

  • using wasted mushroom parts for nutrient-rich sports drinks
  • extracting nutraceuticals from dried tomato leaves
  • re-using peanut shells as fillers for 3D printing and producing natural antifungal compound natamycin
  • extracting phytochemicals from orange peels to suppress cancer recurrence
  • developing new prebiotics for food waste streams.

[1] www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/

[2] www.choice.com.au/shopping/everyday-shopping/supermarkets/articles/how-to-reduce-food-waste

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Associate Professor John Kavanagh
Research Associates: Dr Peter Valtchev,  Dr Dale McClure
Collaborators: Dr Nick Coleman
Industry partner: Agricure Scientific Organics Pty Ltd, Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Australia

Vitamin K is essential to the health of both human beings and domestic animals. Two types of vitamin K, vitamin K1 and vitamin K2, are naturally found in food. The role of vitamin K in human diseases, especially haemorrhagic disease of the newborn, is well known. Increased vitamin K intake may also reduce the severity and/or risk of bone fracture, arterial calcification, inflammatory diseases and cognitive decline.

Consumers are increasingly favouring natural food and therapeutic products. However, the bulk of vitamin K products employed for both human and animal use are chemically synthesised. The vitamin K analogues are much cheaper than vitamin K1 and vitamin K2; however there is evidence that they are much less effective. The largest application of synthetic vitamin K analogue is in the poultry industry. Bone disorders are a perennial problem in this industry and our research clearly demonstrate that while addition of vitamin K1 increases the bone density of chicken, the vitamin K analogue (menadione) dramatically reduces their bone density. Addition of vitamin K1 therefore has the potential to greatly improving animal welfare. It also has the potential to improve farm profitability as it enhances eggs laying. Replacing menadione (vitamin K analogue) with vitamin K1 would result in more nutritious eggs, which is a great benefit for the consumer.

The scope of this project is to identify rich and low cost vitamin K sources that can be used as food and can be added to dietary products to reduce the risk of bone fracture and cardiovascular diseases in both human and animal. The recovery of vitamin K from different resources and scalable bio-processes are approaches that have been used in this project for production of vitamin K.  Biotechnology approaches are also undertaken to genetically modify the bacteria to increase the vitamin K production from an advanced fermentation processes.

Supervisors: Professor Timothy Langrish, Associate Professor John Kavanagh
Research Associate: Dr Dale McClure
Industry partner: AB Mauri Technology and Development Pty Ltd, Lang Technologies Pty Ltd

Drying is one of the oldest technologies used to increase the shelf-life of foods and is an essential technology used today in the production of many foods. A major issue faced in the design of these processes is minimising the amount of energy used as this leads to both, cost savings and environmental benefits. We apply advanced mathematical models (including Computational Fluid Dynamics) to optimise current processes with the aim of reducing the energy expenditure.

Many natural products have a high sensitivity to drying conditions, including the temperature, moisture content and drying time. It is necessary to dry these products in order to increase their shelf-life, but this must be done in such a way that the degradation of the product is minimised as much as possible. We work on the design and optimisation of drying processes that have minimal impact on the nutrition and functionality of the active ingredients in natural products.

The overall aim of this work is to develop and optimise advanced drying processes that can be used to increase the shelf-life of products while maintaining their nutritional activity and at the same time reducing the amount of energy used by these processes.

Supervisors: Associate Professor John Kavanagh, Professor Fariba Dehghani
Research Associate: Dr Dale McClure, Dr Peter Valtchev
Collaborator: Dr Junlae Cho (visiting Fellow)
Industry partner: Australian Coral Coast Mariculture (ACCM)  

The production of animal proteins will continue to not be sustainable with our growing population due to shortage of land and water and the environmental impact. Algae (macro and microalgae) is one of the alternative source of high protein and of many other nutritional and high-value compounds. Algae are an extremely diverse group of organisms that can live in both fresh and salt water. They have the capability to produce a wide range of compounds with health benefits including vitamins, polysaccharides, pigments and omega-3 fatty acids. One advantage of using algae to produce these products is that the main inputs into the process are carbon dioxide and sunlight, meaning that the process is very sustainable.

A key challenge in the development of microalgal biotechnology is the scale-up of processes, as well as the production and harvesting of macroalgae with minimal toxicity. Here we are using our expertise in the area of biotechnology to develop and scale-up process for the production of high-value compounds (vitamins and pigments) with applications in the nutraceutical industry. We have developed a new process for the biotechnological production of vitamin K1.

Supervisor: Professor Fariba Dehghani
Research Associates: Dr Peter Valtchev
Collaborators: Professor Richard Banati

This research aims to create a process to treat donated breast milk in a way that retains the vital immunological components while controlling potential contamination by pathogens. The treated product will be a powder that can be reconstituted. It is important for infants to be fed with breast milk for the first six months of life in order to receive the perfect nutritional food source, and to build up the infants’ still-developing immune system.

Infant formula is an inferior substitute and it is particularly an issue in developing countries where inadequate water sanitation and diarrhoeal diseases in infants are a big factor in infant mortality rates. The main objective of this research is to give children access to the benefits of breast milk and thereby will reduce the prevalence of acute and chronic diseases caused by baby formula.

Innovation in food supply chain

We design sensors and decision making tools to understand food production and consumption with the aim to minimise food waste, improve health and innovate the supply chain. Most importantly, the advanced analytics allows food producers to provide sceptical customers with hard, empirical data on their products.

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Dr Sina Naficy
Collaborator: Professor Marcela Bilek 

Most plastic materials used in packaging are not degradable and their disposal in landfills has led to significant environmental problems. Various strategies have been implemented to reduce the negative impact on the environment through more efficient recycling and partial replacement of non-degradable plastics with biodegradable materials.

This research is focused on improving the properties of renewable biopolymers and biodegradable polymers for packaging food and other commodity products to reduce the environmental impact of using non-degradable plastics. For example, millions of tons of agricultural wastes can be processed for compostable packaging food products.

Bioplastics are synthesised through green chemistry methods with minimum environmental footprints. Poly (propylene carbonate) (PPC) and poly (β-hydroxybutyrate) (PHB) are two examples of biodegradable polymers. PHB is naturally produced by a range of microorganisms. In commercial scales, this bioplastic has been biosynthesised by fermentation of sugar and natural oil. PHB is free from any immune response, inflammation or anastomotic failures.  

We have designed benign processes such as high-pressure carbon dioxide as a monomer or solvent for the synthesis, purification and processing of biodegradable polymers, as well as a novel custom-made food grade plasticiser that can reduce the stiffness of PHB and increase its flexibility. Through a series of chemical functionalisation, we are now able to tune the hydrophilicity and water absorption of PHB components. Employing these techniques, we aim to develop next generation of biodegradable polymers for packaging and many other applications. 

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Dr Sina Naficy

Lignin is a biopolymer that is abundant in nature. It can extracted from agro-based plants like nut shells, seeds or wood-based sources, and depending on their extraction process, it can have different functional groups on its structure such as sulfonate and carboxylate.

This research looks to enhance processability and mechanical properties of hydrogels by incorporating highly-functional natural polymers such as lignin.

Hydrogels are water-swollen polymeric networks, suitable for a variety of applications such as tissue engineering, biomedical devices, soft robotics, agriculture and advanced sensing. Due to their swollen nature, hydrogels are classified as soft materials; their modulus reduces proportionally with increasing water content according to rubber elasticity theory.

The correlation between swelling ratio and moduli of hydrogels presents a dilemma in materials design. For many applications it would be advantageous to improve the mechanical properties of hydrogels while holding the same amount of water. We will use the functional groups of lignin for bond formation with hydrogel and other polymers to tune their mechanical, adhesiveness and rheological properties and enable the fabrication of robust hydrogel-based devices via 3D printing, fibre spinning or moulding.

Supervisors: Professor Fariba Dehghani, Dr Sina Naficy
Collaborators: Professor Robyn McConchie, Professor Yuan Chen
Other Institute collaborators: Dr Rona Chandrawati (UNSW)
International Collaborators:  Professor Alex Martucci (Padova Unviersity, Italy), Professor Mara Thiene (Padova University and Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London), Dr Fira Gurat (University of Bristol, UK)
Industry Collaborator: Batlow Premium Juices

Food waste is a major global problem. In Australia, consumers throw away around 3.1 million tonnes of edible food each year, with commercial business and industry disposing of an additional 2.2 million tonnes, costing our economy an estimated $20 billion [1].

A contributing factor to food waste at consumer level is the confusion over the expiry dates on food packaging, where it does not reflect the actual state of freshness of perishable or other packaged products. Improving the food supply chains will not only reduce food waste but it will improve food safety and therefore incidence of mortality and hospitalisation from food contamination.

The aim of this project is to develop an array of flexible sensors for early detection of pathogenic microorganisms that are life threatening in fresh food products and gases that are generated from food spoilage and degradation. These sensors will collect real-time information for food quality and safety and can be incorporated in food packaging to measure the level of gases such as ethylene and ammonia, that are generated from food spoilage.

We employ various scalable fabrication techniques such as 3D printing, inkjet printing and casting to fabricate arrays of sensors embedded in paper or plastic films. To enable the sensors to communicate with users, we integrate simple electronic circuits into our flexible food sensors. The research team will design colourimetric, chemiresistive and impedimetric sensors that can provide information for consumers and suppliers in  the food supply chain.

[1] http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/food-waste