Food mechanics study: helping fruit and veg preservation
Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have used supercomputers to examine the mechanics of food plants, and take a closer look at what happens when they are dehydrated or dried.
Lead investigator Dr Charith Rathnayaka, a computational scientist from QUT’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, said, “By developing the computational model, it is possible to estimate how the cells are being damaged when they are being processed for preservation, storage or packaging.
“This innovation has the potential to influence the future of food-drying processes globally in terms of reducing cost, optimising food processing, energy conservation and increasing dried food shelf life.”
Published in journal PLOS One, the study used a computational model to look at how plant cells behave under different types of mechanical forces. The model conclusively demonstrated that it can simulate the micromechanical behaviour of dried plant cells. The results could lead to better designs for industrial drying processes of fruits, vegetables or other plant biological material.
As an example, Dr Rathnayaka described the process by using fresh fruit such as apples, which were simultaneously dried and imaged and then compared against the predictions from the simulations.
The research showed that by controlling the processing conditions such as temperature, pressure, humidity and processing speed, it was possible to control the damage on apple cells to extract the best nutritional value. Dr Rathnayaka said the results also showed that at extreme dryness levels, the cells naturally get damaged even without processing.
“Due to the high pressure in the cells at fresh conditions, they are highly vulnerable to higher forces that take place during processing such as cutting, packing or extruding,” he said.
“This provides valuable insights for not only processing apples but many other comparable fruits and vegetables.”
Dr Rathnayaka said the study’s findings have implications for further research into food processing under drought conditions. He said there is a need to find innovative ways to investigate harvesting and processing produce under extreme climatic conditions.
“Currently there is a research gap in accurately evaluating and predicting drought and heat resistance of plant-food tissues,” he said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has placed even more of an emphasis on the ever-growing importance of plant-food security and more efficient ways to quantify and predict the performance of agricultural produce during droughts.”
The research was co-authored by Dr Chaminda Karunasena from the University of Ruhuna, Dr Chathura Wijerathne from Uva Wellassa University and Dr Wijitha Senadeera from the University of Southern Queensland, with supervision by QUT’s Professor YuanTong Gu. Research imagery featured in the journal Soft Matter.
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