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.

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.

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.

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.

Just PhDone

On November 25th, FoMSci group member Mamata Bhattarai defended her doctoral dissertation entitled “Associative behavior of spruce galactoglucomannans in aqueous solutions and emulsions” in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki. Wood galactoglucomannans or spruce gum are hemicelluloses that are available as side-streams of forest industries. Mamata studied their solubility in water and their performance as emulsion stabilisers, to potentially be used in industries including food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics. Her work provides essential information to improve sustainability within the forestry industry by adding value to treasured wood resources that are otherwise wasted.

We enjoyed a lively discussion between Mamata and her opponent Professor Francisco M. Goycoolea from School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds. After the defense, we celebrated Mamata’s excellent work with a toast and lighting up our Spruce of the Future.

The whole FoMSci group congratulates Mamata for her great work and excellent defense! You can find her research work here. Her work was also featured by Helsinki University press, link here.

Enzyme industry side stream as a novel source for hydrocolloids

One of the key research topics of our Food Materials Science research group is side stream characterization where we aim to make efficient use of wasted natural resources. In our resent study, we focused on side stream biomass obtained from enzyme industry. This type of biomass is obtained during down-stream processing where the enzymes are separated and collected from the leftover biomass, including for example microorganism cells, and the growth medium. Currently, this biomass is treated as waste. However, the biomass is a source for potentially valuable compounds, for example, cell wall heteropolysaccharides.

Our recently published open access article “Fungal Cell Biomass from Enzyme Industry as a Sustainable Source of Hydrocolloids” by Ida Nikkilä et al. reveals the basic composition of this biomass and the fractions obtained from it via alkaline and water extraction. Further, the functional properties of the extracts as hydrocolloids were studied in water suspensions and emulsions prepared from biomass extracts. The study showed that this type of biomass can be fractioned via water and alkaline extraction, and the extracts have potential as hydrocolloids. More specifically, the alkaline extract was found to form a relatively stable emulsion. This was the first time that fungal biomass was studied as a source for hydrocolloids.

This study was part of the Academy of Finland funded “Reassembly of fungal polysaccharides for biocompatible interfaces” (REPLY) -project. A previously posted blog from this project can be found here.

New AoF postdoc grant addresses pharmaceutical pollution in water

Do you know that you might be taking in medicines every day without you knowing it? It is possible when the water you drink is contaminated with pharmaceutical pollutants. These are residual drug molecules, which stay in water because conventional wastewater treatment methods cannot completely remove them. Pharmaceutical pollutants affect water resources, including drinking water in various parts of the world, and may pose health hazards to humans. The good news, though, is that the recently awarded postdoc grant to Melissa Agustin by the Academy of Finland (AoF) offers a potential solution to this global problem on pharmaceutical pollution. The project entitled: “Pickering emulsion-based synthesis of lignocellulose aerogels as adsorbents for pharmaceutical pollutants (PickPollutants)” will develop bio-based materials capable of removing residual drug molecules from water. This multidisciplinary project will employ the expertise in emulsion and aerogel research of the FoMSci group, with support from local and international collaborators: Aalto University, University of Eastern Finland, Finnish Environmental Institute, and Hamburg Institute of Technology.

The PickPollutants project is among the 15% successful applications in natural sciences and engineering to be granted a three-year funding by the AoF in 2020. Yearly, the AoF grants funding to high-quality scientific research in various fields with the aim of contributing to the renewal, diversification and increase internalization of Finnish research.

Kudos to Melissa´s new project! This shows that here in FoMSci, we care not only about the foods you eat, but also about the water you drink!