New materials and technologies open huge possibilities for food industry

How about a healthy cheese cake or Sachertorte stabilised with spruce hemicelluloses or saturated fats replaced by oleogels? Fabio Valoppi develops new, sustainable, and economical ways for modifying food structure.

October 2017. PhD Fabio Valoppi arrives in Finland to work in Assistant Professor Kirsi Mikkonen's research group in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry. His goal is to work with emulsions that are stabilised with spruce wood hemicelluloses. After observing spontaneous sedimentation in hemicellulose-rich wood extracts, he thinks of an environmentally friendly, solvent-free method to separate different fractions. His goal is to obtain efficient emulsion stabilisers.

Assistant Professor Mikkonen likes Valoppi's ideas and encourages him to write an Academy of Finland funding application. After a series of comments from Professor Edward Haeggström in the Faculty of Science and some serious rewriting, Fabio Valoppi gets the three-year-grant of about € 270 000 from September 2018 onwards.

– My idea was evaluated well, so I thought that we might bring it to the next level. I talked with Professor Haeggström who said that my idea absolutely has commercialisation potential. With his support, I started to write my Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships (MSC-IF) application in April 2018 and finished in August. And then I got that grant, too, Fabio Valoppi smiles one year later.

The MSC-IF grant is officially from 2020 to 2022 and the research plan – because of the commercialisation possibilities – cannot be revealed in its entirety. This much Fabio Valoppi can say: It has to do with modifying oleogels with new technology.

Oleogels are new lipid-based materials that can be used to replace saturated fats without affecting the final structure of the product. Oleogels are considered promising, but modifying their structure and stabilising them needs new technologies. With his Academy of Finland funding, Fabio Valoppi has already been studying how sound waves can be used to modify oleogel structure in a controlled manner.

"Oleogel research has been developing a lot in recent years. I cannot compete with whole groups of people studying new molecules and developing new structures. I decided to see what I can do with the technology and physics side," he says.

Acquiring sisu

After the shock of coming to Finland at the darkest and dreariest time of the year in 2017, Fabio Valoppi has – as he himself states – acquired sisu, the Finnish word meaning guts and tenacity. Before coming to Finland, he did research in the US, Canada, Slovenia, and Italy, and local differences are always to be expected. His family has stayed back in Italy, so taking care of everything needs a certain amount of commuting.

"Actually, I feel quite well adjusted here, living in Latokartano area near the Viikki campus. Some things in the university are somewhat different than what I have experienced earlier. It first amazed me that students are getting paid for their lab work in the research groups. That means you have less students available than for example in Italy, where a certain amount of work without pay is expected. And as my funding does not include salary costs, I'm thinking of applying a grant that could be used for that purpose," Fabio Valoppi describes.

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