The labs of the Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies, a partnership between the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the National Agronomic School of Montpellier (ENSA) are situated in the Languedoc region of France. The unit, which consists of 47 permanent employees including 31 scientists supervising about 20 students, has made some interesting findings.
"I think our greatest achievement has been in the field of applied research," said research director Jean-Claude Autran. "We discovered the relationship between the protein composition of wheat and the viscous properties of gluten, which has helped us to understand the cooking quality of pasta."
Other discoveries include the ability to process wheat grain into a pre-cooked kernel that can be eaten in the same way as rice. This product is now on the market, under the commercial trade name Ebly.
The institute was established 45 years ago, around the time of the Algerian War. France lost not only Algeria but also its main source of durum wheat, and a centre in Montpellier was set up to see if the grain could be cultivate din the south of France. Since then the centre has expanded and moved onto studying other crops.
A major area of study now is wheat. The unit is currently working on evaluating the impact of dough formation on final food quality, and how to improve the sheeting process.
"The equipment we use is very close to equipment used in industry," associate professor Cuq Bernard told FoodProductionDaily.com. "We also have close links with a number of companies. We have had contracts with pasta maker Barilla, and currently have a contract with an Asian noodle company. We are constantly trying to find new applications and develop new material.
The centre uses state-of-the-art equipment to achieve its aims. Infrared technology , a few months old, is used to evaluate dough behaviour and the absorption properties of grain. And there is also new research into acoustic measurement during food mixing, something that Bernard believes is at the cutting edge.
"We haven't seen any patent for this, so I think this is very new technology," he said.
Another interesting area of current study is an investigation into the properties of flour. Each flour particle contains about 200 molecules, but scientists at the unit have managed to decrease the size of flour particles to just 20 molecules.
"This has packaging applications as the reduction in the sieving of flour opens the door to using the product in papermaking," said Autran. "We're currently trying to separate flour to the 10-micron scale - some people don't believe that this is possible, but it's something that we are trying to do."