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Using MRI to scan products such as bread and cheese to improve food processing procedures

Analyzing organic products using MRI © Irstea


Irstea researchers are using original and non-invasive techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to help manufacturers optimize their food processing procedures with the aim of improving quality and traceability as well as reducing negative environmental impacts. Special report on two future agricultural and food processing projects.

An energy efficient industrial oven

Is it possible to achieve a well aerated crumb while retaining nutritional value, particularly for gluten-free bread in which the lack of gluten limits rise? Using well established MRI technology, Irstea researchers in Rennes have analyzed several chemical and physical transformations that occur while bread is cooked. Cooking temperatures and steam injections [1] are two parameters that bakers understand and manage well. Additionally, researchers looked at the effect of a partial vacuum on crumb structure during cooking, a parameter that is not widely used in food processing.

A prototype oven linking vacuum and steam has been designed to encourage the bread to rise equally before the crust is formed. Initially designed to produce so-called “soft” bread such as sandwich loaf, it produces larger products with fewer calories, additives and with a more regular shape. It also improves the output when using gluten-free recipes or low-gluten flour. The energy required during cooking can be reduced by using a lower operational temperature[2] and by potentially recycling the energy contained in the gases[3].

MECATHERM are industrial equipment suppliers and have acquired an exclusive license for the knowledge developed in conjunction with the patent from the MECASOFT research project. Winner of the Farming and Food Processing Projects of the Future (P3A) [4], it has received €810K in funding with the aim of commercializing the oven for industrial bakeries in 2020. Imaging techniques can be used for other food processes beyond the bakery sector. 

Studying the formation of bubbles in cheese

In world of pressed cheese, such as Maasdam, holes and their distribution are very important. They are a purchasing choice criterion: cheese with an irregular appearance may end up melted or grated, leading to a financial loss for the manufacturer.

To better understand which conditions are favorable to hole formation, Irstea researchers used MRI to analyze the growth of an isolated bubble in a whole cheese, and then in a ripening room, as part of the Affinao project (2016 - 2018) patented by the Fromageries Bel. MRI is particularly effective at visualizing the growth of bubbles in an opaque environment without having to cut through them. The cheese can therefore ripen without being disturbed and each product can be monitored individually.

The observations, combined with others on the transfer of matter and heat, were used to validate physics-based digital models developed in partnership as part of the project. The aim was to achieve an improved understanding of production, better energy efficiency and to respond to consumer expectations.

To encourage this research, the Investments for the Future program (PIA) has provided €773K to the Affinao project, winner of the Farming and Food Processing Projects of the Future (P3A).

For more information

[1] Steam injection involves adding steam before putting the bread in the oven

[2] Higher temperatures are not required for the bread to rise

[3] Vacuum cooking involves channeling the gases until they are extracted by a pump.

[4] Farming and food processing division of the Investments for the Future program, the Farming and Food Processing Projects of the Future (P3A) provide financial support for promising initiatives, such as new technologies, genomics, new products, decision support tools, renewable energy or organic products.