Food and cooking has become one of the nation's favourite pastimes.
Now food science, the technology that underpins it all, is becoming the next big thing.
Garry Lee, UWA's new Professor of Food Science (pictured) is overseeing the development of a new Master of Food Science that will enrol its first students in less than a year.
He has already made an impact on WA's food industry. Professor Lee and his colleagues in the Centre of Forensic Science and TSW Analytical have recently won an award from the Food Industry Association of WA for Best Service to the Industry. In the award's other categories, Professor Lee was a judge.
They won the award for their work on what Professor Lee calls traceability. Their research was funded by the Australian pork industry and they have developed a technology called Physitrace, by which they can trace Australian-produced pork back to the farm.
"We export a lot of our pork to Asia, especially Singapore - it's a huge industry," Professor Lee said. "In the past, if anything was wrong with any of the pork from Australia, it could mean the entire market was thrown into chaos, with billions of dollars lost. There is a national livestock identity system but there are loopholes in the system. We are able to close those loopholes with our technology based on chemistry and the environment," he said.
"If any suspect pork is found in Singapore, they can send a sample back to us and, within 36 hours, we can say where that pig came from, so the whole industry is not hurt and can keep going, while that one producer is identified."
Their research also applies to biosecurity. "If something like foot and mouth disease appears, we are able to say quickly where the cow came from and can save the industry a lot of money, not to mention the spread of the disease."
As well as food safety, he is also interested in the health benefits of food. He recently did the science for a range of flavoured carbonated water on sale in Australian supermarkets.
Rejuvenating Water has the anti-oxidant benefits of some Indigenous fruits, including Kakadu plum, lemon aspen and wild rosella.
"Kakadu plum is bitter and fibrous but has more vitamin C in it than anything else known to man," Professor Lee said. "So we extracted all the good chemicals from the fruit, then tested it for antioxidants and worked out how much of the extract needed to be in the drink for it to be an effective anti-oxidant. Apparently it's selling quite well."
Professor Lee said studies had estimated about 10 per cent of food in supermarkets was fraudulently labelled. "I've seen New Zealand Kiwi fruits labelled as Italian, prawns from Vietnam selling as Australian and a wine from China that tried to pass itself off as coming from the Coonawarra region of Australia," he said.
The industry-ready graduates from the new Masters degree will be trained in food provenance to help guard against such fraud.
They will study chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition, nanotechnology, microbiology, sensory science, forensic science and engineering to produce the next generation of food products, to improve food processing techniques and to ensure quality, safety and nutritional value of the food supply.
Graduates with either a Science or Engineering degree can apply for the new program, to start in second semester next year. The course is being developed in collaboration with Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, PathWest and the National Measurement Institute.
Professor Lee sees the future of food production lying with nanotechnology and genetic modification "It's not really new: many years ago, the carrots and strawberries that we know now didn't exist. They have been selectively bred or modified by hybridisation to become what we recognise today," he said.
"And some time in the future, our meat will be grown in laboratories.
"But we don't yet know how safe these productions methods are or how we can prove that certain foods are what they say they are. And that's where forensic science and food science comes in."
With so much insight into food production, does it stop Professor Lee eating anything?
"Come on, I'm Chinese. We eat everything!" he said. "But I think I've put some people off eating chocolate by telling them how the cocoa farmers in the West Indies and Ivory Coast take their boots off and ‘polish' the beans by trampling them with their dirty sweaty feet, after which they are only very, very lightly roasted and ground.
"But don't worry, dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, so it is still very good for you."
- This story from UWA News of 5 October 2009.