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!

Mamata Bhattarai (PhD) was awarded the inaugural best dissertation prize by The Finnish Natural Resources Research Foundation

The awarded thesis was titled;


Mamata was presented by the foundation with the 10,000€ award for the doctoral thesis that best advance’s the foundations goal at the annual festive gathering held at Demo in Helsinki. She completed her PhD at the Department of Food and Nutrition, University of Helsinki in December 2020 under the supervision of Associate Professor Kirsi Mikkonen.

Renewable and biodegradable plant polysaccharides, such as wood hemicelluloses are envisioned to be used as future raw materials in consumer products, including food or pharmaceuticals. Mamata’s research explored softwood hemicelluloses from spruce (galactoglucomannans; GGM). GGM obtained from different recovery approaches are currently finding applications as emulsifiers and stabilizers of dispersed systems. Their associative properties are affected by the recovery approach since it influences purity and intrinsic characteristics (e.g., molar mass, degree of substitution). The novelty of Mamata’s study findings lies in linking the solution properties of aqueous wood hemicelluloses with their functionality in emulsions, namely, interfacial morphology and stability. Understanding the impact of the GGM recovery approach on its associative behavior, currently limited, is essential to comprehend the stabilization mechanism of GGM in dispersed systems as well in the expansion of its functional applications

The most important finding from this study is that polysaccharide “solubility” plays an important role in interfacial structures and emulsion stability. The former can be tailored with recovery procedures, which provides a unique opportunity to fabricate polysaccharide-based particles. Currently, novel biomaterials are being developed from wood biomass. The findings of this study contributed to the characterization of GGM’s structure at a nanometric scale, thereby enhancing its scope for future applications. These findings would also be relevant in existing operations of paper and pulping industries, as well as for aspiring biorefineries in identifying optimal GGM recovery approach.

The Food Material Science Group would like to warmly congratulate Dr. Mamata Bhattarai for her outstanding contribution to the field during her early research career and look forward to tracking her progress into the future.

Publications arising from Mamata’s thesis work

  1. Bhattarai M, Kontro I, Sulaeva I, Valoppi F, Potthast A, Mikkonen KS. Polymerparticle features of polysaccharides determine emulsion stability and interfacial morphology.
  2. Bhattarai M, Sulaeva I, Pitkänen L, Kontro I, Tenkanen M, Potthast A, Mikkonen KS. Colloidal features of softwood galactoglucomannans-rich extract. Carbohydr. Polym. 2020a, 241:116368
  3. Bhattarai M, Valoppi F, Hirvonen SP, Hietala S, Kilpelainen PO, Aseyev V, Mikkonen KS. Time-dependent self-association of spruce galactoglucomannans depends on pH and mechanical shearing. Food Hydrocoll. 2020, 102:105607
  4. Bhattarai M, Pitkanen L, Kitunen V, Korpinen R, Ilvesniemi H, Kilpelainen PO, Lehtonen M, Mikkonen KS. Functionality of spruce galactoglucomannans in oilin-water emulsions. Food Hydrocoll. 2019, 86:154-161.

The Finnish Natural Resources Research Foundation Award information


To encourage young doctoral students to engage in research related to the sustainable use of Finland’s natural resources, the Foundation annually presents a €10,000 award to a doctoral thesis that best advances the Foundation’s goals. The foundation evaluates nominations based on The award-winning doctoral thesis must be of an internationally high standard and create opportunities to develop the utilization of Finland’s natural resources in compliance with the principles of sustainable development. The thesis must have been approved by a Finnish university. The evaluation criteria include the scientific-technical novelty and commercial potential of the results, as well as the advancement of the principles of sustainable development and resource-efficiency in the use of natural resources.

Creating More Sustainable Cosmetics with Spruce Gum and Birch Gum

The food and the cosmetics industries share some similarities – ingredients are a major one. This research will help both industries by providing them new information about candidate raw materials. Stabilizers, viscosity controlling agents, emulsifiers, to name a few – it’s possible to use the same innovative solutions to provide greener food and cosmetic ingredients. Spruce and birch gum are examples of new promising ingredients that could progress these industries.

A Bachelor of Beauty and Cosmetics (estenomi) student from Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Anne Parkkonen completed her thesis on the use of spruce and birch gum in cosmetics. It was a practical-oriented project and the goal was to plan, formulate and manufacture different kinds of cosmetic products by including spruce or birch gum as an ingredient. The thesis presents the legal regulations related to cosmetics. As previous research is mainly made for food ingredients, using wood gums for cosmetic purposes is a new idea. The thesis provides more detailed information about the legislation behind the use of ingredients/chemicals in cosmetic products.

The emulsion stabilizing features of spruce and birch gums lead Anne’s work to focus on exploring their effect on texture and composition when used in emulsion-based products (e.g. skin creams and serums). Additionally, evidence also indicates these gums have antioxidant, prebiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Some very promising findings from these experiments included how spruce and birch gum made a comfortable and pleasant film-like feel and appearance on the skin when the emulsions dried. Spruce and birch gum seemed to have moisture binding properties which are desirable features in many cosmetic products. These findings support the need for further studies on the use of wood gums in cosmetics.

This thesis project was completed under the guidance of Assoc. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen and Dr. Satu Kirjoranta who study hemicelluloses (spruce and birch gum) and their potential applications. New avenues have been opened from their initial research, expanding into the field of cosmetics, with nine candidate spruce and birch gum-based products created. These products could inspire future research and collaborations with industry in Finland and further abroad to elucidate how to incorporate spruce and birch gum effectively in different applications.

Spruce and birch gum are ingredients from sustainable sources, manufactured using environmentally-friendly technology from wood. This thesis explores just one example of how many small solutions could make the world and its goods more sustainable within a circular economy. There is a need to replace existing ingredients with greener alternatives which are produced locally and from renewable sources. Spruce and birch gum are hopefully an example to support a better future for the cosmetics industry without compromising on product quality. Anne’s thesis will be released later this year. Petri Kilpeläinen from Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) is thanked for providing the spruce and birch gum samples for the study.

New analyses to find out the relationship of hemicelluloses to gut health

Investigation of the effect of birch gum on gut health made a giant leap after the university loosened COVID-19 restrictions, and we got back into the lab. We started to develop two different methods for analyzing birch glucuronoxylan. First, we wanted to analyze whether short-chain fatty acid-producing bacteria could utilize birch glucuronoxylan. These short-chain fatty acids produced by gut microbes from some dietary fibers have been found to be beneficial metabolites. They can, for example, protect against colorectal cancer or metabolic syndrome. Although short-chain fatty acids have been investigated in multiple studies, we previously had not measured them from fecal samples. Two methods based on gas chromatography (GC) were tested and modified before we found a protocol that we were happy with.

Birch glucuronoxylan and different diets were analyzed with pyrolysis gas-chromatography mass-spectrometry (pyr-GC/MS). In this way, we could also evaluate the amount and effect of lignin in the diets. The results from both methods have been promising, and we cannot wait for them to be published.

Members of FoMSci Participated in the ACS Spring 2021 Conference

The American Chemical Society (ACS) annually hosts two major conferences on chemistry, one in the spring and the other in the autumn. Members of the Food Materials Science group in the University of Helsinki have regularly participated in the ACS Spring events since 2005 to present the results of our work. While the ACS Spring 2020 was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, in 2021 the conference was held entirely online via Zoom, with live presentation sessions being held on April 5th-16th and on-demand sessions between April 19th-30th. Several of our members received the opportunity to present our research in the oral presentation sessions. Below is the list of presentation titles and the contributing authors, with the presenters in bold:

  1. Hardwood xylans show prebiotic effect on rodents – Emma Kynkäänniemi, Maarit Lahtinen, Ching Jian, Anne Salonen, Kirsi S. Mikkonen, Anne-Maria Pajari
  2. Comparative emulsion stability study of hot water-extracted birch glucuronoxylans – Felix Abik, Thao Minh Ho, Kirsi S. Mikkonen
  3. Lignin nanoparticles and nanocelluloses for the removal of pharmaceutical residues from water – Melissa Agustin, Mari Lehtonen, Kirsi S. Mikkonen
  4. Green route fabrication approaches of lignin nanoparticles: a comparison study – Patricia Figueiredo, Melissa Agustin, Maarit Lahtinen, Sami-Pekka Hirvonen, Paavo Penttilä, Kirsi S. Mikkonen
  5. Analytical insights on lignin-carbohydrate complexes in softwood and hardwood extracts – Danila Morais de Carvalho, Maarit Lahtinen, Martin Lawoko, Kirsi S. Mikkonen

We normally would have attended the conference live in the United States, but as it was held entirely online, we could participate without having to travel from Finland to the United States. The format also allowed us to watch the presentations that we found interesting, despite being spread across different divisions, and move between the different parallel sessions seamlessly. For example, most of us were involved in the Division of Cellulose and Renewable Materials (CELL), but we could easily switch to sessions within the Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry (COLL), Agricultural and Food Chemistry (AGFD), or Analytical Chemistry (ANYL), to name a few. This allowed us to listen to various topics of our choice, maximizing the insight we got from the conference.

However, the sessions were organized based on the Pacific Daylight Time, which is 10 hours behind our current Eastern European Summer Time in Finland. Therefore, the sessions of the day began at 7 PM Helsinki time, and closed early in the morning. Consequently, a special mention goes to those  who had to present in the early hours of the morning. It also became rather difficult to watch the presentations that were scheduled later in the day. Nevertheless, an option to allow presenters to open their presentations to be available for on-demand viewing until April 30th was available, which allowed us to watch many of the presentations that we missed, was in parallel with other presentations, or even fell asleep while watching due to the late hours.

Overall, despite missing the direct interaction aspect of traditional conferences, we still managed to obtain as much knowledge and experience as we can from ACS Spring 2021. We look forward to our next participation in an ACS Meeting!




ROCK – building new knowledge to valorize forest resources

ROCK: ROle of lignin Carbohydrate complexes as Key to stable emulsions project has been completed. The project was designed to valorize forest resources, especially those from Nordic forests. Hemicelluloses-rich extracts, obtained by an environmentally-friendly water-extraction method was previously identified as a functional substance for stabilizing emulsions. Although rich in hemicelluloses, they also contain a certain amount of other polysaccharides and lignin co- extracted. When we commenced this project, the reason for the excellent stability performance of hemicellulose extracts as emulsifiers was still unclear and our hypothesis was that at least some of the residual lignins could be covalently linked to the polysaccharides forming so-called lignin-carbohydrates complexes (LCC). Such hybrid composites have two distinct regions, one more hydrophilic (hemicellulose part) and other more hydrophobic (lignin part). As a result, each region can interact with the different phases of the emulsion, possibly explaining the emulsion stability achieved using hemicellulose-based emulsifier. Our main aim was to investigate the presence of LCC in hemicelluloses extract and identify the role of such structures in emulsion stabilization. To do this we investigated the structures and functionalities of hemicelluloses extracts. In the initial part of this study, we characterized various types of hemicelluloses extracts obtained from birch and spruce wood. Using a combination of fractionation and advanced identification techniques, we demonstrated that some of the lignin residues in the extracts were involved in the formation of LCC linkages of various types (i.e., phenylglycoside, benzylether, and gamma-ester). A previous posted blog with these findings can be found here.

Next, we investigated how the different polymer populations in the hemicelluloses extract, including the LCC structures, are distributed between the emulsion phases (i.e., droplet interface and continuous phase) and what aspects drive such distribution. Beyond differences in the appearance (see figure), we discovered that the hemicelluloses populations in the various emulsion phases also differed in terms of their chemical and structural aspects. The residual lignin is a component of fundamental importance for the hemicelluloses orientation during emulsification and for the stability of the emulsions. Moreover, the various LCC structures identified in the hemicelluloses extracts were fractionated between emulsion phases depending of their type. In summary, ROCK provided the cornerstone to better understand the composition of hemicelluloses extracts and their functionality in emulsion, pushing the wood-hemicelluloses a step closer to added-value applications.

The ROCK project was funded by Tandem Forest Value and led by Assoc. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen (University of Helsinki, Finland) and Prof. Martin Lawoko (Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden).

Unravelling the assembly mechanisms of emulsions: a new collaboration between FoMSci (University of Helsinki), BiCMat-Aalto and BiCMat-UBC groups (Aalto University and University of British Columbia)

We are pleased to announce the launching of a research collaboration between FoMSci (University of Helsinki) and Biobased Colloids and Materials operating both in Aalto University (BiCMat-Aalto) and University of British Columbia, Canada (BiCMat-UBC), led by Prof. Orlando Rojas. This collaboration is boosted by the joining of two postdoctoral researchers, Drs. Mamata Bhattarai and Emilie Ressouche working under the joint supervision of Profs. Rojas and Mikkonen. Mamata finished her PhD from FoMSci in November 2020, and Emilie comes from the Department of Applied Physics, in the Molecular Materials group, led by Prof. Olli Ikkala.

The research topics and the know-how available in both groups are complementary: FoMSci brings expertise in emulsions, hemicelluloses, and food applications.; BiCMat also works with multiphase systems based on lignocellulosic bio-colloids. Together, the groups will investigate the mechanisms responsible for the formation of emulsions stabilized by bio-based compounds such as lignin/hemicellulose complexes, and plant- as well as marine-derived bioresources.

This research project aligns with the goals of the BioElCell Research project, funded by Advanced ERC (2018-2023) in BiCMat, and will also bring an expansion to our Academy of Finland funded ENVISION project, leading to a wider comprehension of emulsions stabilized by wood hemicelluloses.

We nailed it again: four new funded projects to FoMSci

Between November and December 2020 our FoMSci group has received four new grants: three to Fabio Valoppi (iOLEO, ENGEL, and iFOOD), and one to Thao Minh Ho (FinPowder).

Fabio’s projects: The iOLEO and ENGEL projects, funded by the University of Helsinki three-year research grant scheme (7% success rate – only 9 projects were funded among 128 submitted) and the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, respectively. These projects aim to develop new oleogels with body weight managing abilities unlocking the potential of oleogels as multi-functional fat substitutes. Mr. Tiago Pinto has been selected and hired as a new PhD student in the iOLEO project and will begin his work in April 2021. For the other project, ENGEL, we are currently in the process of hiring a postdoctoral researcher. The iFOOD project, funded by HELSUS, aims to develop a new digital tool to simulate mechanical properties of food products using finite element method simulation. This project is based on the existing and fruitful collaboration between FoMSci and the Electronics Research Laboratories (ETLA) also from the University of Helsinki.

Thao’s project: The FinPowder project, funded by the Finnish Natural Resources Research Foundation, aims to design powder particles to protect functional compounds of wild berry during spray drying. These coating materials originate from sustainable and natural sources that are extremely low in calories and cost, namely wood-based celluloses and hemicelluloses. Mr. Abedalghani Halahlah has been selected and hired as our new PhD student to work in the FinPowder project and will join the FoMSci group within a couple of months. Abedalghani will be co-supervised by Associate Professor Kirsi Mikkonen and Dr. Thao Minh Ho, in collaboration with Professor Vieno Piironen.

The cherry on the cake is that thanks to these new projects, our group will now be able to purchase a brand-new lab scale spray dryer!

Even though 2020 has been a tough year, we ended it in the best way possible with new funding, new people joining FoMSci, and new equipment. Writing proposals can be very energy demanding, but the doors that these new projects will open make it worth all the effort we put in during the writing process.

2021 has already started, and new and exciting times are waiting for us ahead!

Integrating Freshpack technology into existing production lines

The Freshpack project aims to establish an active packaging technology that prevents premature spoilage of fresh produce. The technology provides a longer shelf-life by slowing down natural ripening and inhibiting microbial spoilage of fruits, berries, and vegetables. This research-based project is driving the preparation of our novel technology for commercialization. We have worked closely with operators throughout the food distribution chain to explore the best way to integrate the technology into existing production lines. In addition to Finnish operators, we have had global interest from countries including Italy, Japan, and Nigeria. With regard to food packaging legislation and the interpretation of its scope, we have had interesting discussions with the Finnish Food Authority and other food and contact material legislation experts. More comprehensive investigation will begin next year.

Based on discussions with stakeholders, the first fresh produce target category will most likely be berries, because of their valuable price and relatively short shelf-life. So far, we have managed to increase the shelf-life of blueberries and raspberries by several days in a wide range of temperatures. This enables the technology to be transferred to real-life distribution chain settings. After preliminary tests, we will continue with large-scale storage testing including microbial safety evaluation.

Over the past year, we have worked intensively on overcoming technical issues to ensure that our first minimum viable product (MVP) is easily adoptable at a low cost. The MVP will be a Freshpack pad that simultaneously provides moisture absorption and cushioning properties. Pads are already widely used in the berry packaging industry allowing for effortless implementation into existing production lines. While concentrating on a pad solution, we are also looking for future funding options to gain full benefit from this technology. Future applications will contain more scalable options, for example, coating for cardboard and layers for plastic films.

Despite the current constraints caused by Covid19, we have managed to take the project forward as planned. This is partly due to our expanded team, which grew by two at the beginning of the year. Dr. Mari Lehtonen, who is one of the researchers behind this technology, returned to work on technical development and MSc Kimmo Peltola joined to assist in the laboratory.

Stay tuned for the next updates!

A previously published blog post of the Freshpack project can be found here.