Research Areas for Food and Consumer

Consumer Insights

To succeed in the market, a product has to function well and appeal to consumers. Not only should product development be backed by strong science, it must also be guided by a deep understanding of the needs and desires of consumers.

Case study 1: Our scientists at IHPC have developed an intelligent system, SentiMo, that can automatically classify social media messages into six different sentiment categories to enable companies to derive insights on public sentiments and emotions. This could serve as a powerful tool for companies seeking to gather consumer insights online.

Case study 2: In the Digital Emotions project spearheaded by A*STAR’s Science and Engineering Research Council, scientists at IHPC and I2R are collaborating with the Advanced Digital Sciences Center to develop a next-generation integrative system that is capable of recognizing emotions from visual and non-visual cues, such as in audio and language, which can help companies gain deeper insight into consumer’s reactions.

Sustainable Ingredients for Food and Consumer Products

Natural Product Library

As one of the most diverse and comprehensive collections of plant and microbial samples in the world, the Natural Product Library serves as an important starting point for the discovery of bioactive compounds and enzymes for industries ranging from pharmaceuticals, ingredients, flavours and preservatives, to personal care products and cosmetics. The open-access and intensively screened biodiversity resource comprises 37,000 plant samples and 123,000 microbial strains. These specimens, collected from local habitats and through diverse international collaborations, represent 57% of cultured fungal genera, over 67% of the world's plant families and 70% of filamentous bacterial genera. When coupled with in-house advanced metabolic engineering strategies, it creates opportunities to develop novel products that are relevant to the consumer care and food industry. This rich resource is supported by capabilities in functionality screening done through standard or novel assays.

Biotransformation Innovation Platform

Aimed at establishing Singapore as a leading hub that translates biotransformation research into practical applications for the food and consumer industries, the Biotransformation Innovation Platform (Biotrans) focuses on:

  • Optimising microorganisms to produce high-value ingredients
  • Advanced microbial fermentation processes to impart flavour, fragrance or functional benefits
  • Upcycling of agriculture and food waste into value-added products

Biotrans is part of the International Associated Laboratory, along with the National University of Singapore Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI) and the Laboratoire d’Ingénierie des Systèmes Biologiques et des Procédés (LISBP) / Toulouse White Biotechnology (TWB) from France. Together, they facilitate joint training initiatives, research scientist exchange programmes and the co-development of projects that nurture talent with bioprocess engineering capabilities in Singapore.

Biotrans - Production of Lycopene

Case Study 1: A patented technology by Biotrans produces more lycopene, a cancer-preventing antioxidant found in tomatoes, in a 2000L bioreactor – compared to turning the whole of Singapore into a tomato farm. Lycopene, also found in red carrots, watermelons, grapefruits and papayas, is known to improve heart health, provide skin protection and reduce the risk of certain cancers. It is also widely used as an ingredient in food, supplements and cosmetics. Biotrans provides a sustainable approach – by culturing a bacteria engineered to produce lycopene – that is not restricted by climate, saves land and water, and is efficient and consistent in yield.

Case Study 2: Through the Adaptive Laboratory Evolution (ALE) method, Biotrans improved the phenotypes of yeast strains to produce Mycosporines and Mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs), which strengthened their UV filter properties without needing a light source.

Ultraviolet Protection Using Sustainable Materials

Scientists from our Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) have also developed a range of UV filters using lignin, nanodiamonds and other bio-derived polymers, which are considered safer and more sustainable.

Food and Chemical Safety

Innovations in Food and Chemical Safety

Laboratory animal testing has in recent years become a contentious research tool in the development of food and consumer care products. This is not just due to strong lobbying from animal rights activists, but also to scientific evidence indicating that costly and time-consuming animal testing methods are not accurate in predicting safety or toxicity in humans.

Our Innovations in Food & Chemical Safety Programme (IFCS) is developing “21st-century risk assessment strategies” that eliminate animal use and more accurately predict safety risks in humans. Our goals are to:

  • Advance the regulatory acceptance and application of novel safety testing methods in Singapore and internationally
  • Enhance the safety of Singaporean and global consumers through sound and sustainable science
  • Grow Singapore’s branding for high quality and safe food and consumer products
  • Build expertise and grow future talent to stay ahead of changing regulatory, industry and consumer trends

Case Study 1: The increasing numbers of novel food products waiting to enter the market requires food safety regulators to come up with equally innovative methods of risk prediction and safety assessment. Our team at IFCS adapts existing gastro-intestinal tract cellular models to create new tools to regulate the safety of novel food and nano-ingredients. By improving the accuracy of predictive bioinformatics tools like AllerCatPro, we partnered the Singapore Food Agency in evaluating alternative protein products like the “Impossible Burger” and certified that it was safe for human consumption.

Case Study 2: Chemicals used in beauty products can result in undesired localised itching, swelling and redness due to tissue damage. Using large-scale targeted metabolomic profiling, we can predict the effects of actives/ingredients within in vitro skin models. The changes in the metabolite levels can be correlated with the extent of tissue damage, which helps to determine the irritation risk of ingredients.

Future Ready Food Safety Hub

The Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH) facilitates the mission to secure Singapore’s food supply and attractiveness for developing and launching novel food products by building local food safety science and R&D capabilities. We jointly set up FRESH with the Singapore Food Agency and the Nanyang Technological University to support the food innovation ecosystem.

FRESH aims to bridge the gap between disciplines, and connect industry, regulators and the public research community to:

  • Enhance R&D capabilities for food safety risk assessment and validation for new product development
  • Strengthen Singapore’s food safety ecosystem by providing a neutral platform to foster collaboration on food safety R&D
  • Enable regulatory responsiveness and agility by exposing regulatory scientists to novel methodology developed in the food industry early, to detect food safety issues promptly and accelerate a product’s journey to market
  • Support talent development, capability building and training for food safety science

Overall, FRESH will facilitate the launch of "first-in-market" food products and promote Singapore-developed food standards internationally.

Clinical Nutrition and Food Structure Engineering

Could food be the new medicine? By understanding how diet and food intake influence health and nutrition, food could be “designed” to prevent diet-related diseases and potentially reduce healthcare burdens without compromising on sensory properties. By collaborating with clinical partners, we conduct public health studies and nutrition cohort/intervention studies to uncover evidence-based insights. They guide the design of food constituents, formulation, processing and diet recommendations.

Case Study 1: Confectionary products such as biscuits are popular among Asians as they can be eaten at any time of the day. However, such products are often not only high in calories but also cause an increase in glycaemic response. Our researchers have developed a potentially healthier but equally flavourful low-glycaemic index biscuit that provides better control of blood glucose levels. This is particularly important among Asian populations that have a higher predisposition towards impaired glucose tolerance and/or type II diabetes.

Case Study 2: To better understand eating behaviours of children and reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity in Singapore, our researchers collaborated with local pre-schools to investigate how children select their portions as well as develop appetite traits and eating behaviours. The team demonstrated that there was a strong link between parental food selection and choices, and their child’s health. Parents who took larger portions for themselves may habitually select larger portions for their child. This may in turn influence a child’s long-term perception of what is an appropriate portion size and affect subsequent energy intake and metabolism.

Formulation, Encapsulation and Performance Understanding

Whether an active ingredient can deliver its desired effects depends largely on its formulation. From traditional formulation capabilities to novel encapsulation technologies, we have a range of expertise to achieve the optimal product formulation. We focus on:

  1. Developing new polymers that are biodegradable, adaptive to various stimuli, multi-functional or equipped with other desirable properties
  2. Developing encapsulation systems, which enhance the stability of actives or control their release at defined time-points or targeted sites
  3. Developing new formulation systems which enhance product safety and acceptance

After an active ingredient has been incorporated into a formulation, its microstructures, bulk properties and interactions with surfaces need to be characterised. This determines if the final product will achieve its expected performance. Stability tests and microbial studies are also crucial before releasing a product into the market.

To ensure that products are ready for commercialization, we have developed the following expertise:

  • Microstructure

    Our scientists at IMRE use atomic force microscopy to visualise the microstructure of a product at sub-nanometer resolution.

  • Bulk properties

    Rheological (how materials deform and flow), tribological (friction, lubrication and wear of interacting surfaces) and viscosity (fluid friction) studies are performed using the various specialised instruments in ICES. Such sensorial attributes are especially critical for topical skin/hair care products.

  • Interactions with Surfaces

    Several methods are used to study a product’s interactions with surfaces. For instance, ICES employs a specialized instrument known as the quartz crystal microbalance to interrogate the deposition, interaction and removal of ingredients on surfaces. Other examples include skin/hair penetration studies using Raman spectroscopy, in vitro Franz diffusion cells or skin-on-chip models.

  • Interactions with Surfaces

    Several methods are used to study a product’s interactions with surfaces. For instance, ICES employs a specialized instrument known as the quartz crystal microbalance to interrogate the deposition, interaction and removal of ingredients on surfaces. Other examples include skin/hair penetration studies using Raman spectroscopy, in vitro Franz diffusion cells or skin-on-chip models.

Case study: Determining if a newly formulated shampoo is truly moisturising or a face cream is suitable for oily skin without testing it on humans may be tricky. But this can be overcome with skin models that recreate aspects of human skin physiology, function or disease, and computational tools that can simulate ingredient deposition and how it penetrates skin.

Our scientists at IHPC have built in silico models of different hair and skin types that allow molecular dynamics simulations. The data-driven approach predicts the physical properties of formulations and helps to identify polymers that work best for the encapsulation of sensitive actives. Similarly, IMRE has machine learning capabilities that can significantly reduce the formulation development time by allowing optimisation to be performed in silico before embarking on time-consuming in vitro formulation development.

These are complemented by the physiologically-based pharmacokinetics skin model developed by SRIS, which integrates skin physiology, exposure and chemical data to predict skin tissue levels, as well as the systemic absorption of actives and formulated products in populations of interest.

Packaging and Manufacturing

With growing concerns over environmental pollution and adverse health effects caused by traditional packaging materials, the food and consumer care industry is under pressure to not only reduce the use of plastics but also develop sustainable and safe alternative packaging materials.

  1. Circular Materials Lab

    To find a sustainable replacement for plastics, several of our research institutes have joined hands to establish the Circular Materials Lab. They are working with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies to identify their packaging needs and develop suitable products to meet them.

  2. Biodegradable Packaging

    Our ICES scientists are developing biodegradable packaging through free radical polymerisation. This is done by introducing biodegradable links into non-biodegradable polymers with carbon backbones.

  3. In Silico Modelling of Packaging

    A team of our IHPC researchers has developed in silico models to understand packaging integrity at the molecular scale. Machine learning methods are also used to predict the toxicity of packaging additives.

Digitalisation is disrupting the manufacturing sector, creating more efficient processes and building closer relationships between manufacturers, suppliers and consumers as they become one seamless, integrated ecosystem. To help companies navigate through their digital transformation journey, we have established model factories.

Factory of the Future

Our Model Factory initiative provides real-time manufacturing environments that allow companies to learn from and test newer Industry 4.0 technologies within an ecosystem of partners. The Model Factory @ SIMTech helps companies just starting out on advanced manufacturing technology adoption, while the Model Factory @ ARTC assists those in more advanced stages of technology adoption and which are ready for comprehensive Industry 4.0 technologies.

ARTC Hyper-Personalisation Line

Case study: By harnessing the capabilities of advanced robotics, the Hyper-Personalisation Line Programme (HPL) helps companies in the FMCG industry develop smarter processes. HPL focuses on advancing the personalised filling of products, and the customisation of orders in brownfield plants or in-house distribution centres with digital connectivity capabilities.