“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”
A researcher from the University of Tennessee focuses on developing new stabilizers that prevent ice crystals in ice cream.
Everyone loves ice cream,” said Tao Wu. “But if you have big ice crystals, the ice cream will have an icy texture. It’s not good.”
Wu is an associate professor in the Department of Food Science. For the past seven years, he has studied nature-inspired biomaterials to fight freeze-induced damage to ice cream and other foods.
Current stabilizers for ice growth inhibition do not perform very well, so the ice cream industry is eager to find new materials for stabilizers,” said Wu. “Mother nature has provided a good example on how to develop these new materials.”
Cold-tolerant fishes, insects and plants produce antifreeze proteins to overcome the damage caused by freezing. These proteins bind to the surface of ice crystals and prevent their growth, enabling the survival of these species at temperatures below zero.
Learning from the structure and antifreeze activity relationship of these proteins, we have discovered several materials that may be used as ice cream stabilizers,” said Wu. “One such material is nanocelluloses, which are cellulose nanofibers produced from biomass. Another material is hemicelluloses, which are natural polysaccharides that can be produced from corn cobs. These materials can inhibit the growth of ice crystals. We have studied their performance in ice cream and obtained a rich knowledge of how they inhibit ice growth under different processing and formulation conditions.”
Wu is thankful for funding support for his work from the Tennessee Corn Promotion Board, and the United States Department of Agriculture. He is also grateful for the UT Research Foundation’s support, particularly connecting him with representatives from ice cream manufacturers about his innovation.
UTRF has connected me with the industry to collect their feedback on my technology. Thus, I have a better understanding of industry’s needs, which will help me tailor my research,” said Wu. “Additionally, UTRF has connected me with funding support, such as the Chancellors’ Innovation Funds, maturation grants, and other business opportunities.”
In his work, Wu enjoys the thrill of discovery and the joy of his students’ successes. He has found professional satisfaction from several of his former advisees achieving their dream career paths.
Notable examples of this include his former master’s student Matthew Reeder landing a job in an ice cream company and doctoral student Min Li receiving the Excellence in Graduate Research Award from UTK’s Graduate Student Senate and Shipley-Swann Graduate Fellowship.
Most of the time in academic research, we have a hypothesis, and then we fail,” said Wu. “With our work in this field, we had a clear hypothesis at the beginning and proved our hypothesis. It demonstrates the beauty of nature.”
In the future, Wu and his team are looking to scale up production of hemicelluloses from corn materials. With UTRF’s support, he is looking to commercialize the technology. Additionally, Wu and his team filed invention disclosures of several other “antifreeze” materials that may find applications in the cryopreservation of biological materials.
“Nearly everyone can relate to the experience of taking a bite of ice cream only to encounter an icy, unpleasant texture. Wu’s research is extremely relatable to a wider audience,” said Kusum Rathore, Vice President of UTRF’s Multi-Campus Office. “We’ve already received industry interest in his technology for use in the ice cream industry and beyond. I look forward to watching this technology and partnerships progress.”