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Past Winner
2002 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Alejandro Marangoni

Food Science

University of Guelph

Alejandro Marangoni
Alejandro Marangoni

Alejandro Marangoni's highly successful decade long professional research career has been inspired by one seemingly simple kitchen conundrum: how to make butter spreadable at refrigerator temperature.

The question has led the University of Guelph food scientist to fundamental new insights into the physical properties of fats and oils, and made him a sought after expert by the who's who of multinational food companies. It's world-leading research for which Dr. Marangoni is being awarded a 2002 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship - one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

In 1992, Dr. Marangoni, then a newly appointed professor, was trying to create spreadable butter in his lab. And in short order he did, by randomly changing the positions of the fatty acids that make up the milk fat in butter.

What he found most intriguing, however, was that although the randomized butter didn't quite taste like butter, all its key physical indicators - including melting point, solids content and crystal structure - were identical to the original butter.

"There was no explanation in the fats and oils field as to why this should be so," Dr. Marangoni says.

Dr. Marangoni began to explore what at the time was a food chemist's no-man's land: the intermediate level of structural organization between the molecular-level characteristics of fats and oils and their physical qualities as observed at the butter dish level.

In so doing, the researcher helped establish a new area of study into the so-called micro- or nanoscale structure of not just fats and oils, but other foods as well.

Dr. Marangoni demonstrated that exactly the same fat crystal structure can result in substantially different textures of, for example, butter, depending on the shape and size of the conglomerates they form and how these crystals are arranged in space - their crystal network.

His research has subsequently focused on how mixing and cooling rates affect the fat crystal networks that form. His Steacie-sponsored research will continue to quantify the relationship between food's texture and its fat crystal network, and particularly how mixing a liquid predetermines the structure of the subsequent solid.

The results will allow food processors to better predict the characteristics of their finished products.

"Whatever we do (in my lab) must somehow, sooner or later, have an application," says Dr. Marangoni. Originally from Ecuador, he notes that his work is influenced by the experience of coming from a poor country, where there is little room for basic science that doesn't produce tangible, marketable benefits.

"The science is sometimes the easy part," says Marangoni. "Take that spreadable butter for example. It's nice and soft, but it tastes like fruit punch."