Milk has an ancient history – likely going back some 10,000 years, with the domestication of animals – and has benefited the development of the human body, contributed to the creation of the modern food industry and, along with its by-products butter, cheese and ice cream, is found in almost every refrigerator today.
It’s also a complex liquid, and something food scientist and dairy expert Zhengtao Zhao, PhD, has spent more than eight years studying. More precisely, he has worked with the casein micelles, the most important protein in milk, and something he calls a “natural magical entity.”
Zhao’s research involving dairy protein, fat and polysaccharide encapsulations, are also common elements for all beverage production and have laid the groundwork for his new role as the food scientist – beverage specialist for the Technology Access Centre (TAC) at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, part of Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division.
His expertise extends beyond dairy science and includes a comprehensive background in the area of food science in product development, research, food processing, quality control and commercialization. He draws on previous experience as a product developer and research scientist at Parmalat Canada, Gay Lea Foods, the University of Guelph, and Shanghai Toong Yeuan Food Technology.
This food scientist will play a key role in the College’s trailblazing beverage research initiatives. The CFWI Innovation Centre’s Beverage Centre of Excellence will be part of an entire research floor of the 49,000-square-foot Marotta Family Innovation Complex (based at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake), and includes designated laboratories focused on beverage research; and equipment to facilitate beverage processing, treatment and analytical research, including cannabis research.
The Beverage Centre of Excellence (made possible thanks to recent funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)) will serve as a one-stop-shop for beverage innovation and commercialization that will help SMEs bring their products from concept to shelf. The focus area is the liquid portfolio of food and culinary innovation, which includes beverages (non-alcoholic and alcoholic); spoonables and pourables (such as condiments, marinades and dressings); and cannabis research, including extraction, infusion and product development, mainly for beverages.
Zhao is responsible for assisting in the start-up, management and operations of the Beverage and Liquids R&D Pilot Processing Facility, part of the Beverage Centre of Excellence. Lab work includes the execution of product and process innovation, analytical lab, beverage processing, beverage equipment protocol development and other technical services and applied research activities.
“Solving problems for industry partners is very meaningful, and I always believe that science should be utilized to solve practical issues instead of only publishing papers. The most attractive part of the job is that it keeps your brain active and updated as we are dealing with different projects that need different knowledge,” Zhao explains his decision to join the CFWI Innovation Centre team. “Moreover, I like to mentor and provide guidance for the students while also learning from them.”
Zhao’s fascination with milk started as a child, curious about the difference in structure between yogurt and milk, with the former being solid-like and the latter free-flowing liquid.
“Solving problems for industry partners is very meaningful, and I always believe that science should be utilized to solve practical issues instead of only publishing papers.”
“After I went to university, I started to understand a little bit more about the fermentation and the formation of protein gel structure and realized how complicated the structure of casein micelles is and how widely used it is in the food industry.”
His formal education began in his home country of mainland China (a small city called Zaozhuang in the Shandong Province). After earning his Master’s degree in Food Science, he decided on the University of Guelph, known for having one of the best dairy research labs in the world. There he earned his PhD in Dairy Science.
He has been published in prestigious journals, such as Dairy Science & Technology, the Journal of Dairy Science, Journal of Dairy Research, Food Hydrocolloids, Food Chemistry and Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
One of his more significant research projects centred around concentrated milk using different membrane techniques. While most dairy companies use the ultrafiltration (UF) membrane to concentrate milk, in his team’s research, they used microfiltration (MF), with results showing that concentrated milk produced from MF has much better heat stability and shelf life.
“More importantly, when MF concentrated were used as an ingredient for cheese making, the obtained gel has stronger structure, indicating that MF is a better choice than UF to produce cheese products,” says Zhao, adding that many dairy companies in Europe and the United States now use microfiltration techniques.
Certainly, it has been a “strange” beginning to Zhao’s new role, as he was hired at the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, so with the closure of the College campuses, he has not yet had hands-on access to the research labs to work on projects.
“I was a little panicked at the beginning, but thanks to my amazing colleagues, they’ve given me a lot of support and help during this period.”
He has also been able to remotely work on an applied research project for a local family-owned ostrich farm wanting to simplify the extraction process and improve the quality of its ostrich oil. He has been able to do some preliminary research for proposals to these process procedures and hopes to follow up once the labs are open.
Zhao currently lives in Guelph with his family: his wife Xiuju Wang, son Evan, 5, and daughter Emma, 3, and enjoys hiking and fishing.
He is also an avid NBA fan; the highlight of last year came when the Toronto Raptors made history and won the NBA championship. He says he stood amongst an entire country, a proud backer of the slogan “We The North.”
The Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre offers a full suite of services to support industry innovation and commercialization of new products and processes. To read more about what the Centre offers, visit their website.