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Food scientists tackle the mystery of bubbles

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WORTHINGTON -- Beer, bread, breakfast cereal, ice cream and apples all contain a common, simple element most people don't think about -- bubbles.

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Though they might seem unimportant, bubbles are what give many foods the right texture, and studying them will potentially lead to important advances in food science and the food industry.

"Ice cream would have 50 percent air by volume in it. The air is very important from the point of view of the smoothness of the ice cream," said Martin Scanlon, professor of food science at the University of Manitoba. "You would have maybe 80 percent air in bread ... almost any food you look at, you'll see a significant portion of air taking up the volume of that food item."

Scanlon will speak about bubbles in food science at 11:15 a.m. Thursday at the seventh annual Regional Bioscience Conference, along with technician and licensed chef Michael Stringer.

The two-day Regional Bioscience Conference, hosted by Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. and sponsored by Southwest Initiative Foundation, will begin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus.

Though the bubbles topic crosses over the hard sciences, from physics to chemistry to biology, Scanlon and Stringer's talk should be accessible to the average person without a strong scientific background.

"I think if we're not capturing students into science with some interesting stuff, probably even before high school ... we're going to lose them," Scanlon said. "People are able to immediately connect with (this material) because they all eat food."

Scanlon and Stringer will give presentations to high school students on Wednesday before the conference begins, hopefully inspiring students to take an interest in science -- and take a second look at the bubbles in food.

"It's something worth studying from the science perspective, because a lot of foods have a considerable amount of gas in them," Scanlon said.

Getting the bubbles to grow or gases to dissolve in food in the first place is only part of the process. Getting the product and its bubbles to retain its shelf-stability, often by baking or freezing, is another critical factor.

"We use different techniques to understand what's going on in these aerated systems," Scanlon said. "We've been looking at ultrasound to study bubble growth."

X-rays and million-dollar scientific machinery have even been employed to better understand the seemingly simple process of baking bread.

Companies also sense that there is money to be made in bubbles.

Beer producer Guinness was suffering a decline in sales because people were increasingly purchasing beer in supermarkets rather than in pubs. The company found an innovative way to package its beer so the quality was the same in a can as in a pub.

"They went through about six or seven years of trying to get a particular device that would create these bubbles as you depressurized the can, and get (the can) to duplicate what was being served in the pub," Scanlon explained. "And they did manage to do it. Their sales just went through the roof on the canned product because they were able to do it."

Bubbles have a major impact on the taste and mouthfeel of soft drinks, muffins, candy and even natural products such as apples, whose crispness depends on having the correct air content.

"We're trying to keep it light, so we're not going to have lots of equations, but we will emphasize some of the science," Scanlon said. "It is focused on a light-hearted look (at the topic) but with also that hard message -- if you can understand this science better, there is the potential to exploit these development opportunities. There's also a profitability motive."

The bioscience conference includes topical sessions from a variety of speakers throughout Thursday and Friday as well as industry tours. Projects completed by the Worthington Middle School Science Club will be on display Friday.

All sessions of the Bioscience Conference are open to the public. For a complete schedule and to register, visit www.wgtn.net and click on the Bioscience logo.

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