A new study conducted at two universities in Manchester has revealed that microwaves, which are used for zapping instant meals, can also be used to determine the fat and salt content of supermarket food.
Sing Kwei Ng, a student of PhD and one of the researchers behind the study, has won a top industry prize for his work to determine the amount of fat in beef.
His award-winning paper, which details initial results of his team's work, will be presented at the 'LMC Congress: Innovations in Food Technology' conference in Denmark on Thursday.
Professor Andrew Gibson from the University of Manchester's Microwave and Communication Group is leading the Microwave Profiler project.
He is working with The School of Materials and Professor Paul Ainsworth from the Department of Food and Tourism Management at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Since microwaves heat a variety of food at different rates, the researchers hypothesized that the device should also be sensitive to food content like water, salt and fat — which was the starting point in the study.
The researchers have revealed that the aim of their project is to develop a new fast and non-invasive method of predicting the fat content in meat products. This may help reduce wastage and laboratory testing during the production process, maximise yield, and save energy, they say.
"Greater awareness regarding food safety and health issues means that consumers are now more concerned than ever about meat products being safe and fresh with a low fat content. Food contents and ingredients now have to be disclosed under the European Union legislation but cannot currently be measured quickly or cost-effectively," Sing Kwei said.
"The meat industry is under extreme pressure to find new cost effective methods of meat quality evaluation at every level of food processing. Knowledge of the fat content of meat products is critical. The potential of our system to overcome current technical barriers to practical measuring instruments could significantly impact upon food processing and reprocessing technology," he added.
So far, the researchers have carried out successful pilot studies to determine the fibre content in waste products produced by the brewing industry, the moisture content in wheat grain, and the salt content of supermarket food.
They, however, admit that further research is required before their approach can be properly introduced into the food processing industry.
Engineers working on the Microwave Profiler project hope that their efforts will lead to robust and portable microwave-based instruments, which will be capable of taking measurements in industrial or laboratory conditions.