21 August 2017

Celebrated gastronomy professor at FOOD


Ole G. Mouritsen is a professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen, where he directs the research and communication centre Taste for Life. He is also engaged in innovation and dissemination as well as conducting gastrophysics research with gastronomy as a starting point.

Picture of Professor Ole G Mouritsen

Professor Ole G. Mouritsen is a professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the Department of Food Science and held his professorial inaugural lecture in August 2017. Photo: Jacob Carlsen

How do you view the Department of Food Science (FOOD) at the University of Copenhagen as your future workplace?

FOOD, together with the other departments at the University of Copenhagen’s Frederiksberg Campus, has some unique competencies, which recognise that food is much more than “food” and also relates to subjects such as nutrition, socioeconomics, public health, environment and sustainability. In addition, the Nordic Food Lab is a part of FOOD and gastronomy and gastronomic innovation is therefore strong at the University of Copenhagen. In addition, FOOD has a long tradition for applied research and, for example, putting it into play in the form of innovation, which I would like to contribute to. Much of the research I do is on the innovation level, if it is combined with the right companies or public institutions. This could, for example, involve new products based on a scientific approach to gastronomy, food for young people in schools or food for the elderly in their own homes or in nursing homes and hospitals. The collaboration between researchers and chefs at the Nordic Food Lab is central to this.

Your title is professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation. It is an area you have worked with for several years – including in the context of Taste for Life and in connection with the Nordic Food Lab. But what is gastrophysics?

I think of gastrophysics as a focus or a collecting lens that you can use to bring together all of the sciences dealing with food. Gastrophysics, which can also be called culinary science, is not identical to food science. In food science, food is most often regarded as a material that is characterised using, for example, physical, chemical or biological concepts and methods. In nutrition science, food is placed in relation to nutrients and health. Sensory science is the science that deals with the food’s specific relation to the sensory apparatus. All of these sciences are about food, in principle, whether it has gastronomic value or not. For me it is all about connecting them with gastronomy as a starting point. In other words, I am investigating whether gastronomy and the kitchen can stimulate scientific research. In my terminology, gastrophysics is also a more comprehensive expression of what has been called molecular gastronomy.

You have a MSc and PhD in physics and chemistry. Why are you particularly interested in gastrophysics/culinary science?

In addition to my knowledge of science, my interest in gastrophysics as a research area is driven by my great interest in gastronomy and cooking. Of the endless things one can study in nature, I can combine my interest in food and gastronomy with the science of food and taste in a wonderful way. The researcher’s interest is that he or she wants to find out something, but I can also put on another hat and ask myself, why is it important? And here food meets all of the requirements. Food is important both in relation to society and in relation to the quality of life, wellbeing and health of the individual person. It helps to shape us as human beings and helps determine our health and condition overall. With food as a starting point, you can also think about how food resources can be used more sustainably and insightfully and almost every aspect of food involves my greatest interest: the flavour of food in the general sense.

If you know all of the complexity surrounding food as reflected by the related sciences, you may be able to solve some of the challenges that gastronomy – and perhaps also society – has. Challenges I have taken up, for example, are how you can use seaweed as food or how to cook crunchy vegetables. In the latter case, a gastronomic look at the vegetables led me into the sciences of food, where I can use all the tools available here to answer questions about the texture of the vegetables and how most of us like them. Through sensory science you can ask yourself what crunchyness actually is, you can think about the economy and wonder what would happen if vegetables were tastier and more interesting to eat. Through food science you can figure out what it actually takes to make the vegetables crisper and so on. All that is research and science. But the next thing is to go back to the kitchen and use the new insight in, for example, a recipe that might affect society in terms of increased individual wellbeing, an innovative gastronomic product or fewer healthcare costs because more people eat healthier. In this way, the research has been based on a purely practical question from the kitchen and gastronomy and the response to this is returned, via a scientific study, to the kitchen as a useful tool or product that can positively affect society.

As a researcher, you are more involved with communication than most. And as head of the research and communication centre Taste for Life communication is also one of your main tasks at FOOD. But why is it so important to convey knowledge about food science, not least taste to the population?

This is something we have discussed a lot in Taste for Life. The mission of Nordea-fonden, which finances Taste for Life, is to create conditions for better lives, and in Taste for Life we believe that being in contact with your senses and having ownership to the senses are incredibly important – both as an educational project; but our hypothesis in the centre is also that we can actually create better lives by teaching people to better understand themselves and their senses. And underlying this, it is also quite clear that a large part of the population’s health depends on their diet. We have dietary advice and dietary pyramids in the public sphere in the form of campaigns and directives, but we know unfortunately that this does not always work. In addition, the partners in Taste for Life and I believe that children and young people will make more insightful food choices if they gain ownership to their senses. Some may think that it sounds naïve and that people will just end up eating only chocolate if it is all about good flavour and pleasure. But sweet taste and good flavour are not necessarily the same. In fact, knowledge of how to make tasty food will give us a better chance of navigating the jungle of food we find ourselves in, where there is so much on the shelves that food choices have become a very large daily problem for us.

One of the things included in my position at FOOD is that I must continue to communicate. It is my and Taste for Life’s contend, however, is that dissemination also drives research. I would like to show how taste can be used as a model example for doing excellent research that is driven by taste-based communication.

Isn’t it a long way from being a professor of theoretical biophysics, which you have been for the last 16 years as the head of MEMPHYS - Center for Biomembrane Physics at the University of Southern Denmark and to gastrophysics, which you have worked with for a number of years and will come most into play in your position at FOOD?

It is said that science has three pillars: Theory, which originated in ancient times, where you thought things over, the experiments, which began in the Renaissance and computer modelling and simulation, which has arisen in modern times. And research is usually most effective when you get the three pillars to work together. I originally studied physics and chemistry and have worked with theoretical issues on the frontier, where you use fast computers to simulate physical and chemical behaviours of materials. I have also worked with surface physics as a research professor at the Technical University of Denmark and later with soft materials and complex biological systems as a professor of physical chemistry. When you work with the interfaces and the interdisciplinary areas of physics and chemistry, you are well equipped to go into other areas. And when you have a general approach to research, there is not a very big difference between the materials of nature you are researching – or whether the subject is physics, biology, physics, chemistry, biochemistry or food science. There is an underlying set of tools that, if you master them, can be used in many different disciplines. So even though some may say that there it is a long way from theoretical physics to gastrophysics, I do not see it that way myself. In my mind there is no great distance between cell membranes and food – food is made up of biological material and it is just the part of nature we eat.