Sip a Starbucks frappuccino anywhere in the world, and you are tasting the efforts of scientists working behind the scenes in Palmerston North.
The work of researchers at Massey University’s Riddet Institute can be tasted in your cheese, yoghurt, and fruit.
But it is the focus on natural ‘‘future food’’ that has earned the Riddet’s founders New Zealand’s premier science prize.
Professors Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh are joint recipients of the 2012 Prime Minister’s top science prize, worth $500,000.
The scientists have earned the accolade for their work co-directing the Riddet Institute, based at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus.
The two scientists teamed up more than a decade ago to establish the institute, one of the first in the world to bring nutrition and food science together, with a strong emphasis on natural products.
The institute has since used more than $40 million in funding to research food production, training 80 postgraduate scholars and 30 postdoctoral fellows.
In addition, it established Riddet Foodlink, a network of more than 100 companies involved in food innovation.
Big clients include Starbucks, Cadburys of London, PepsiCo, Fonterra and Zespri.
The institute steers clear of synthetics and genetically-engineered products, instead using complex molecular science techniques to exaggerate the nutritional benefits of what nature already offers.
‘‘We do research that leads to discoveries,’’ Prof Moughan said.
‘‘We try to understand foods at a molecular level and we try to understand the structures of nature, the structures that nature gave to foods because they are usually the healthy structures – we try to preserve those.’’
Riddet’s scientists had notably created an Omega-3 protein additive, which enabled food producers to enrich their product with fish oil’s nutritional qualities without a fishy taste.
Riddet and its partners responded to a consumer market concerned about what they were putting in their bodies, Prof Moughan said.
The science could lead to some unconventional products – such as fish-oil enriched icecream, he said.
‘‘These kids hate fishy icecream, but the consumer would love to have high in fish-oil icecream for kids for their brain development ... that’s what needed in the market base, but how do we do it? They come to us.’’
As for Riddet’s influence on one of Starbucks’ signature products, the scientists are keeping their lips sealed as imitation is an ever-present threat.
Massey University Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey said they were a "formidable team".
""Food supply is one of the major issues that faces the world and New Zealand has an enormous amount to contribute. Professors Moughan and Singh realised this early on and have championed it throughout their professional careers.
"The rest of the country is now catching up and realising how important it is."
Other winners included Dr James Russell, of Auckland University, who is internationally recognised for his work in conservation. He was awarded $200,000, $150,000 off which will be used for further research.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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