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51: Food innovation at the heart of future health concerns

The Enzyme and Cellular Engineering Laboratory (GEC), a CNRS-UTC joint unit, combines fundamental and applied research around two main themes. The first, called the "green" theme, concerns everything related to plant metabolism and bioresources with concrete applications, such as the replacement of mineral oils by lipids produced by plants, or the use in nutrition and health of phytosanitary-compounds known for their antioxidant and anti-tumoral properties, such as betanine. The second, the "red" theme, aims to explore the issues of bio-mimetism and biomolecular diversity, in particular by designing biomolecule banks or creating polymers with molecular fingerprints whose recognition performance is comparable to that of antibodies. Innovative research with fields of application ranging from health, to cosmetics and agro-food.

51: Food innovation at the heart of future health concerns

A Woman with science and taste

Claire Rossi, UTC professor of biological engineering, is also responsible for the Innovation, Food and Agroresources elective specialty and the Food Science Platform at UTC’s Daniel Thomas Innovation Centre.

She pursues research activities at the Enzyme and Cellular Engineering (GEC) Laboratory, a joint CNRS-UTC unit. "My research focuses on the food sciences and the impact of nutrition on health, or how to improve well-being through diet," she explains. Appointed lecturer at UTC in 2007, Claire Rossi began in fundamental research. "The objective was to study how compounds of interest interact with cells at the molecular level, such as active molecules from plants or pathogens, such as toxins... In a word: studying precisely the moment when molecules interact with the cell membrane barrier," she explains.

However, she had other skills - "another hat," she says - especially in food and agro-resources, which are quite far from her fundamental research, which is mainly biological.

So, how can these two themes be reconciled, valorised and enhanced? "This is how the themes of the Food Science Platform emerged. The key idea? It was to use the concepts provided by the fundamental research carried out within UTCGEC for concrete applications developed on the platform, directly aimed at the consumer, and therefore at industry, while placing training at the centre of these activities through student projects," she emphasizes.

This has led her to her current research, which focuses on preventive health care on the one hand and innovative foods on the other. "In the first case, the aim is to understand the activity of plant-derived molecules and their impact on human health, for example: the action of flax pectin in preventing vascular calcification or that of beet pigments for their antioxidant or antitumoral preventive properties. But the interest lies in working not only on isolated natural molecules, but to focus on their effects and their interactions within food matrices. Hence the idea of studying nutritional optimization of food. In other words, to work on very classic foods such as sauces or even sandwich bread, for example, and to rework the balance of nutrients in the food, without altering its appearance or taste, an essential point in the pleasure of eating. It is also possible to incorporate natural origin active molecules, according to the properties desired ", explains Claire Rossi.

And with what concrete applications? "Take tapioca flour produced by our partner, the Cassava Starch Corporation in Tanzania. It is a natural food that makes it possible to prepare a ‘Dutch’ sauce that is as creamy and tasty as a classic sauce, but with a fat content that is halved. In a nutshell: working on the biochemical structure of the food without denaturing it," she says.

Involvement of students in very concrete projects? "This gives them undeniable project skills. They can then take part in competitions such as Ecotrophelia, where the various agro-food schools compete against each other, or then create startups," insists Claire Rossi. With the Hush project for example, they won the Gold Trophy for their first participation in Ecotrophelia France in 2018 and the prize for the best innovation the same year at the European edition of this competition, where the winners from each country compete against each other? "Hush is a fruit-based drink with a cappuccino texture and a nutriscore A, the best score on a nutritional scale from A to E," she describes. A success that delights her. "First of all, it underscores the quality of our training. It has also reinforced my approach that innovative foods must remain - this is my trademark - very tasty and give pleasure while being better for the health of the consumer. In short, to combine conviviality, pleasure and well-being," she says.

And in terms of start-ups? "One example is Smeal, which was founded by former students, whom we supported. For several years now, it has been marketing a practical, nutritionally perfect meal, designed in particular for sportsmen and women, in the form of a rehydration powder. Hence the name ‘nomadic meal’. Or its trade-name Hush, which will be created and launched next December," she concludes.


INNOVATION FOOD AND AGRO-RESOURCES (IAA) A HIGHLY SOUGHT-AFTER ELECTIVE SPECIALTY

It is a small specialist section (between 20 and 25 graduates per year), but recognized in the world of agro-food innovation. By winning the Gold Trophy at the Ecotrophelia France competition in 2018, then the Coup de Coeur prize at the Ecotrophelia Europe competition with their “Hush”, fruit-based hot drink, the IAA students have demonstrated their skills. And companies are not mistaken. Indeed, between 2014 and 2017, the time it took to secure a first job was less than three months and 54% of the students were hired even before their final internship. The programme includes courses in the fields of food formulation, innovation, nutrition, analysis of organic and food products, agro-industrial operations, marketing of innovation, etc. During training, students also have access to a sensory analysis room, a food formulation laboratory and equipment for measuring the physico-chemical and rheological properties of food.

Emma Ruby, who graduated in 2017

Why did you choose this line of work?
I was attracted by the science that underscores food, it's an area that raises questions of public interest, ethics and is at the heart of current and future issues.

And what now?
After 2 years of VIE in a bakery/pastry/ chocolate ingredients company (Puratos), I was hired as Junior R&D manager in the field of bread ‘improvers’.