Writing retreat in Tvärminne 19.-21.10.2022

The writing retreat has been an annual event, organized by the Food Materials Science Research Group since 2018, with the intent of setting aside the experimental work and shifting the focus to scientific writing activities. This year, we embarked on a journey to a different location and experienced three fruitful days at the Tvärminne zoological station of the University of Helsinki.

During our retreat in Tvärminne, a beautiful rural area in southern Finland, the members of our group, along with our group leader, Kirsi Mikkonen, got the chance to get together and be productive in a breathtaking place by the sea. We spent most of our time in the classroom, reserved for quiet working, which helped us productively engage in writing, some of us commencing new applications, others finishing old, nearly forgotten publications. Group meetings and fertile scientific discussions were held outside of the classroom. In addition to the hard-working time, everyone enjoyed the delicious meals and desserts during lunch and dinner. The group members sat together chatting, while admiring the amazing sea views. This gave us the opportunity to talk about each other’s work, and get to know new and old lab members better.

Following lunch, some chose to take a walk, enjoy the serene environment and admire wild berries and mushrooms. To reward ourselves after a long day of work, we indulged in going to the sauna and swimming in the cold waters, amongst some friendly jellyfish. After the sauna, we all got together to eat, play games and sing karaoke.

Overall, it was a unique experience, as we had the ability to work productively and share thoughts and ideas with our colleagues.

A year into making mushroom mycelia a mainstream food – Update on MyShroom

‘MyShroom’, funded by Business Finland’s Research to Business Programme, started in August 2021 with the aim to bring tasty, ecological, protein-rich fungal food to the growing vegan and meat alternatives market.

With an increasing global need for sustainable food, fungi are becoming an attractive option for consumers seeking nutritious, affordable, ecological, ethical, safe, easy-to-use, protein- and fiber-rich food. In our current practice, only about 5% of edible fungal material is consumed as mushrooms, while the rest remains unused in the form of mycelia, waiting for its potential to be unlocked as a sustainable food source. Through ‘MyShroom’, using liquid fermentation from food industry side-streams to feed and grow edible mushroom mycelia, we are not only creating attractive foods but also returning food waste back to humans to consume in a safe, ecological, and circular way.

We initially conducted the screening of 19 different varieties of edible mushrooms using 4 different food industry side-streams. In parallel, clearance from the University of Helsinki Ethical Review Board was obtained to conduct preliminary sensory evaluations which complemented the screening studies, leading us to choose a suitable mushroom variety and culture media. During the last year, we have optimised production, increasing mycelia yield and reducing growth time. We have been able to grow mycelia with additional fermentation products to obtain exceptional nutritional value with a sensory profile rich in mushroom, umami flavour and texture resembling egg white and meat. We have also developed a mycelia-based cheese analogue and validated the product type with a consumer pool, which developed our understanding about what customers are expecting from alternative food products. We have also managed to engage a great number of potential stakeholders from multiple countries within various branches of food industry such as plant-based food, ready-made food, dairy, bakery, pet food, and fine dining restaurants.

In the upcoming year, we will develop strategies to utilise our existing vertical farming facilities to scale our production from laboratory to pilot and then industrial scale. By having our stakeholders participate in our early phase piloting and product validation testing, we are expecting to establish partnerships with manufacturers and potential customers. With many industry partners showing keen interest towards our products, their feedback based on customer needs will help us to finalise our product/s. We will also conduct product texture development, sensory evaluation, and consumer perception studies. In the alternative food market, mushroom mycelia bring added value to customers in a tastier, healthier manner with clean label benefits.

Ultimately, we want to produce food that is healthy for you as well as the environment and edible mushroom mycelia, which are full of potential, will help us get there.


MyShroom Team: Shuddhodana, Jutta Varis, Minna Isotupa, Marko Saapunki, Pauliina Lankinen, Pekka Varmanen, Mari Sandell, Laila Seppä and Kirsi Mikkonen.

The team is supported by Elena Inguglia and Kajsa Kajander from Helsinki Innovation Services.

Picture from left to right: mycelia, sensory attributes, mycelia cornucopia (drawn by Julia Varis).

A new Academy of Finland (AoF) postdoc research project explores an innovative way to utilise wood hemicelluloses

Wood hemicelluloses are currently treated as low-value by-products of the pulp and paper industry and remain outside of the biorefinery process. The development of value-added applications of hemicelluloses for producing new advanced products will boost forestry operations, promote economic growth, and secure employment in rural areas. To support this goal, Thao Minh Ho in the FoMSci group received funding for a 3-year AoF postdoc research project to develop an innovative approach to employ wood hemicelluloses as capsule wall materials to formulate new synbiotic powders. The project entitled “SynCap: Design of spray-dried synbiotic microcapsules for healthy, functional, and sustainable powders” aims to establish wood hemicelluloses as superior wall materials in the production of microcapsules of probiotics, and potentially many other bioactive compounds.

This project will bring the interdisciplinary expertise and knowledge in food materials sciences, food chemistry, food digestion and microbiology from different research groups within the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry. The project also establishes a new collaboration with the Biomass Science and Technology research group at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark).

Every year, the AoF funds high-quality scientific research in various fields with the aim of contributing to the renewal, diversification and internalisation of Finnish research. The SynCap project is one of 32 successful applications (out of 217, 15%) in biosciences, health and the environment research fields granted in 2022.

New project: VegeSense aims to secure the supply of high-quality vegetable products

Left: M.Sc. Maria Waldén. Right: Dr. Mourad Kharbach.The food chain is in a shift towards more ecological practices. To feed the growing world population in a sustainable manner, it’s crucial to find solutions to reduce food waste and shift our eating habits to remain within the boundaries of environmental resources. To succeed, the movement towards a planetary diet must be appealing, affordable and uncomplicated for consumers. With ready-cut fresh vegetables consumers can conveniently increase their consumption of fresh vegetables, however the shelf-life of this product category is very limited due to rapid quality loss, often because of over-ripening, browning and tissue degradation, which leads to significant amounts of food waste.

Currently, the underlying deterioration mechanisms after processing and packaging are not sufficiently understood. To tackle this waste, our new project VegeSense, led by Assoc. Prof. Kirsi S. Mikkonen and funded by Novo Nordisk Foundation, aims to provide complementary understanding of these deterioration processes by researching the key metabolites and their role in the quality loss of ready-cut fresh vegetables.

M.Sc. Maria Waldén started in the project as a doctoral researcher in January. Her work is co-supervised by Prof. Mari Sandell and Assoc. Prof. Saijaliisa Kangasjärvi and it will focus on how packaging effects the sensorial quality of ready-cut vegetables and what volatile compounds originate from their metabolic reactions, thus defining their shelf-life. Maria feels very excited about the topic and finds it immensely meaningful, as there is a high possibility of finding solutions that could be applied to practice at an industrial scale rather quickly to reduce environmental pressure. The project is highly multidisciplinary combining food technology, analytical chemistry, plant science and data science. This diversity will allow these complex mechanisms to be deciphered through research from a combination of perspectives and scientific backgrounds.

Dr. Mourad Kharbach started in March as a postdoctoral researcher. He will collaborate with Assoc. Prof. Arto Klami from the Department of Computer Science. Mourad has experience working with large data sets collected by advanced real-time (spectral or chromatography) instruments from different matrices and extracting the hidden information by means of statistical, machine & deep learning, or chemometric tools and linking these with the desired outputs. Particularly, he will develop statistical approaches to analyze untargeted and targeted fingerprinting (e.g., hyperspectral imaging, spectroscopic, and chromatographic) profiles moving beyond traditional lab-based experiments. Mourad will lead the development of non-destructive, fast, reliable, and sensitive methods for sustainable solutions of food materials in terms of quality and safety with the goal to optimally join human forces and machines.

Through this project we aim to provide solutions for reducing food waste and limiting climate change via the improved shelf-life of fresh-cut vegetables and their increased consumption. The resulting improvements in packaging technology would be highly applicable to the food industry and could therefore help the food industry to keep costs – both environmental and economical – in control, which we hope would eventually lead to a decrease in prices and increase in vegetable consumption. By making it financially possible for consumers to conveniently increase their use of fresh vegetables in their diets, healthy eating habits and sustainability can be enhanced.

We are eagerly waiting for another two researchers from the areas of plant science and analytical chemistry to join us in June, complementing our team with their expertise. We will hear more about their work soon, stay tuned!

Picture from left to right: M.Sc. Maria Waldén, spectral imaging test setup, Dr. Mourad Kharbach.

Wood hemicelluloses have great potential as wall materials for spray-dried microencapsulation of bilberry juice

The FinPowder research project funded by Finnish Natural Resources Research Foundation aims to develop a new strategy to offer sustainable and healthy food choices to global consumers while also valorizing Finnish wood-based hemicelluloses and wild berries. Further information about the project can be found here.

Since FinPowder commenced in April 2021, we have evaluated the suitability of different types of hemicelluloses and celluloses for spray-dried microencapsulation of bilberry juice. We have also optimized the methods for the preparation of feed solutions including bilberry juice, and selected hemicelluloses and celluloses. Thanks to a parallel research project driven by Doc. Fabio Valoppi, a new laboratory spray-drier (B-290, Buchi Labortechnik GmbHDE, Essen, Germany) has been installed in our laboratory (Figure), which has provided a research instrument upgrade that also supports the FinPowder project. Initial results of spray-dried microencapsulation of bilberry juice indicated that hemicellulose had a high retention capacity for bioactive compounds during spray drying with an encapsulation efficiency of 70–80%, similar to that of conventional wall materials (gum arabic and maltodextrin). We used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to determine the morphology and physical appearance of microcapsule powders coated by sGGM are shown in the figure.

Along with the spray-drier installation, we have worked with a technical engineer from Buchi to successfully design a customized drying chamber which allows the collection of powders at different distances in the drying chamber while they are being dried. We have also installed and carried out testing with a high speed camera system that allows us to investigate the particle powder formation, live. These analyses enable us the first time in this project to characterize microcapsule wall formation happening during the spray-dried microencapsulation process. The FinPowder project has received a second year of funding from the Finnish Natural Resources Research Foundation to conduct further investigation on microcapsule powder characteristics, optimization of the spray-dried microencapsulation process, and investigation on the formation mechanism of microcapsule wall. More to come!

Figure: A Buchi spray-drier, physical appearance and morphology (SEM image, on the right) of bilberry microcapsule powders prepared from hemicelluloses.

The in vivo study on modified fat systems has started!

Research on oleogels and their functionality in mice has started at the University of Helsinki Biomedicum animal facilities, designed by docent Fabio Valoppi’s research group in collaboration with docent Teemu Aitta-Aho.

This novel investigation will look for physiological differences between mice fed diets high in oleogels and other fats including their body composition, food-related behaviour, and weight fluctuations, along with other characteristics during a three-month period. These mice will become integral research participants in this study as we depend on information from them to ensure that the developed oleogels are safe to eat, bringing them closer to their possible commercialization.

Although it is vital to understand the impact of the consumption for any given food or ingredient in humans, forecasting their behaviour during digestion is complicated. A meal’s effects on i.e. hormone production, absorption of nutrients and impact on gut microbiota is not easy to predict, and science can only go so far with laboratory models.  In vitro digestions models analyse pH constants, as the gut’s equivalent enzymes and acids are delivered by a set of spatulas and beakers, attempting to mimic the human digestive process. As you can imagine, this process falls short when determining several aspects of the digestion of oleogel-containing food, such as: How much is safe to eat? What kind of hormonal response do they activate? Or how does it affect cholesterol (both good and bad ones) in blood? Certainly, we need to answer these and many other questions before proceeding.

Hopefully this study will run smoothly, allowing us to fill in knowledge gaps about oleogels and supports the data obtained by us and many other food scientists around the world that are looking for healthier substitutes of saturated fats.

Pictures from left to right: mice diet comparison and visual inspection, research assistant M. Sc. Afsane Kazerani collaborating with one study subject.

Slush 2021 helps members of FoMSci to connect with potential investors

In early December 2021, several members of FoMSci participated in Slush 2021. The “world’s leading startup event” was held at the Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre. Slush 2021 gathered 8800 attendees from all over the world with diverse backgrounds, from highly prominent founders and investors to researchers, companies, media, executives, operators, and other talents.

The atmosphere in Slush was very unique compared to other typical conference events. Different colours of lighting with fog filled the air, giving a feeling of being inside a techno-club rather than a conference. The opening ceremony started on the morning of 1st December, a DJ playing techno music with multiple lighting effects and projections on huge screens across the venue. There were four big stages with different talks occurring simultaneously, multiple side events and the surrounding space was filled by booths from different global startups, companies, research centres and universities. Besides, plenty of closed and open-spaced meeting rooms were available for all attendees. This gave the attendees many choices on how to make full use of their time.

Several members of FoMSci who were funded by Business Finland under Research to Business (R2B) projects at different commercialisation stages were invited to attend Slush 2021 by Helsinki Innovation Services (HIS). We were joined by 14 other University of Helsinki’s science-based innovation projects in a specially designed space. Each of our projects was given a table equipped with an iPad to present our innovation to visitors and potential investors. During the two days event, our booths were swamped by many visitors interested in our innovations. This supported our belief about the importance of our innovations for the world’s future. The most notable visitors included the Minister of Science and Education, Antti Kurvinen, and ex-Deputy Prime Minister of Finland, Antti Petteri Orpo. We also maximised the opportunity to meet promising investors from all over the world. “It was an eye-opening experience to interact with investors, learning the important points that they are looking for, and their insights on our innovation”, said Anis Arzami, FoMSci postdoctoral researcher representing FreshTech in Slush 2021.

Here are the project summaries of FoMSci members who attended the event.

  1. OleoFlow: Ari Salmi, Fabio Valoppi and Anton Nolvi. Re-engineering fat to make tasty foods finally healthy. Often tasty foods are unsustainable and most often full of fat and sugar, which can cause weight gain and obesity. OleoFlow offers a solution for consumers to enjoy tasty food without the need to change their diet, by using oleogels which replace unhealthy fat. OleoFlow technology can be functionalised to suit all types of foods and give the consumers a satiety feeling. Besides helping consumers to eat less, OleoFlow is free from chemical modification, easily customisable, sustainable, and vegan. OleoFlow was also showcased at the Slush 2021 side event, Y-Science and the final pitch was presented by Fabio Valoppi.
  2. FreshTech: Anis Arzami and Kirsi Mikkonen. A new innovative packaging technology to reduce the waste of fresh produce. The ripening of fresh vegetables, fruits and berries can be delayed by using FreshTech technology. FreshTech offers a solution to preserve the taste and nutritional quality of fresh produce more effectively compared to currently available packaging solutions. The concept of this technology is based on the controlled production and continuous release of hexanal into the packaging container using a recyclable bio-based, food-grade matrix. The hexanal released from the matrix can maintain the freshness of the produce and inhibits microbial spoilage.
  3. MyShroom: Jutta Varis, Minna Isotupa, Marko Saapunki, Kirsi Mikkonen and Pauliina Lankinen. Mycoprotein as substitutes for animal protein in food. Current meat substitutes available on the market are heavily processed with a long list of ingredients to mask the off-flavours from plant proteins. MyShroom offers a healthier and tastier alternative for current meat substitutes by using mycoprotein, which is a high-quality protein, cheap, sustainable and can be conveniently used by the food industry. MyShroom is suitable for sandwich toppings and as a material to develop other food products.

We had a really nice time at Slush 2021, and we exchanged many interesting ideas with the visitors, not just for the benefit of our current science-based innovation projects, but also for future collaboration opportunities. We received a lot of valuable comments on how to improve our products and how to proceed further to realise our ambition of a start-up company. Overall, being in Slush is a remarkable experience and we wish to attend the event again next year and for years to come.

Special appreciation to HIS for giving us this wonderful opportunity and for coordinating the preparation of the event.

Writing retreat in Lammi 11.-13.10.2021

The Food Materials Science Research Group, reinforced with Prof. Maija Tenkanen and her Carbohydrate Enzymology and Chemistry Group, spent three days at the Lammi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki.

The classroom was reserved for quiet and calm working, where a good flow was achieved with a number of new articles, grants, and reports developed. Many interactive scientific discussions were held outside of the classroom, whether that be in the sauna, over lunch and dinner, or into the evening. Our team was fed with delicious meals: breakfast, lunch, coffee, and dinners. The food was again wonderful, and we could focus all of our energy on writing and data handling.

We picked mushrooms in the Evo forest area and our master mushroom cook, Hongbo fried these up with plenty of vegan margarine over a live fire as an evening snack. Evening sauna and swimming in the fresh cold water in the Pääjärvi lake was very relaxing. Our trip was most enjoyable, after this heavy covid-closure period, as we readjusted to sitting together and having long evening discussions about science and more with real, living people.

A couple of highlights:

In the writing retreat of 2019, Fabio introduced to the group a modern idea about writing an article together in 24 hours. Unbelievably, the outcome was not quite as easy and fast. Thanks to Fabio’s ongoing dedication to the 24-hour paper, now, after 24 months, we finally celebrated publishing our review article:

Valoppi, F., Agustin, M., Abik, F., Morais de Carvalho, D., Sithole, J., Bhattarai, M., Varis, JJ, Arzami, A., Pulkkinen, EE, & Mikkonen, KS. Insight on current advances in food science and technology for feeding the world population. Frontiers in sustainable food systems.

We got also joyful news from other accepted articles:

Kuribayashi, T., Lankinen, P., Hietala, S., Mikkonen, K.S. Dense and continuous networks of aerial hyphae improve flexibility and shape retention of mycelium composite in the wet state. Composites Part A, accepted.

Hagel, S., Lüssenhop, P., Walk, S., Kirjoranta, S., Ritter, A., Bastidas Jurado, C., Mikkonen, K.S., Tenkanen, M., Körner, I., Saake, B. Valorization of urban street tree pruning residues in biorefineries by steam refining: conversion into fibers, emulsifiers and biogas. Frontiers in Chemistry, accepted.

Mushroom foraging in Sipoonkorpi National Park

Hunting for mushrooms in Finnish forests is a peaceful and unique pastime. Food Materials Science Research Group, along with family members and research collaborators experienced a wonderful day in Sipoonkorpi National Park. We were joined by Milla Koponen who is a self-taught mushroom identifier and has been fascinated by the world of fungus since she was a teenager. A major part of her youth was spent living in a little village in Eastern Finland, so the forest and the many mushrooms hiding within have played a great role in her life.

Walking through the damp forest, our eye catches a glimpse of white, golden yellow, and brownish mushrooms at the foot of an old birch. There is no general rule on how to recognize edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones, and to classify them requires extensive knowledge and experience about mushrooms. Therefore, we decided to pick samples of almost all the mushrooms, with the exception of the smallest of mushrooms, we encountered on our trek. After two hours of foraging, we gathered together at a campfire to enjoy grilled sausages (and mustard) while listening to music served by a professional musician, Riku Turpeinen. During this time, Ms. Koponen taught many of us to identify specific edible mushrooms, and how to cook them.

No matter what types of mushrooms and how many mushrooms we picked, the hunted mushrooms were so precious to us as it was the first time for many of us to have the opportunity to pick mushrooms in this foragers paradise. A big thank you to Jutta Varis who organized the trip, we had such a nice time enjoying Finnish nature, learning how to identify mushrooms, and particularly the delicious mushroom meals we created with the edible species we returned home with.

Picture from left to right:

Relaxing time at the campfire site with grilled sausage and music served by Riku Turpeinen after two hours foraging for mushrooms in the forest.

The identification and classification of hunted mushrooms with the help by Milla Koponen.

The tasty edible mushrooms including porcini mushrooms, several types of brittlegill mushrooms, and common puffball mushrooms. Findings also included salmon coral mushrooms which were not edible but a fun discovery as it indeed looks like coral.

Freshpack – summary

Freshpack was a Business Finland project that aimed to develop and commercialize an active packaging technology that prevents premature spoilage of fresh produce. This project ended in August 2021 and despite of Covid-19 constraints and other technical challenges we succeeded to show the technology’s capacity to increase the shelf life of berries. We also managed efficiently produce an active material using a spray dryer

We have worked closely with Finnish operators throughout the food distribution chain to identify critical points, that are integral to maintain the quality of fresh products in a commercial environment. In addition to Finland, Freshpack has attracted global interest among operators in the food distribution chain, which shows that there is a real demand for our technology. We have selected a few interesting funding options which will be targeted to develop Freshpack technology further prior to commercialization. The future development will be focused on the management of key reactions, optimization of ingredients, and the manufacturing process which would help us to better answer to the needs defined by our partners within their commercial environment. During the Freshpack project, we also defined the pathway required to get our technology accepted into the European Union’s list of authorized active and intelligent materials.

Although we didn’t manage to produce a minimum viable product within the scope of this project, we all are pleased and driven by the results of the Freshpack project. Stay tuned, we’ll be back!