This summer Ricky Lam was flown to Ottawa to meet celebrity chefs and receive honors from Governor General Michaëlle Jean for his innovative research and “immense potential” to contribute to the food industry.
Though the University of Saskatchewan agriculture student had published two research papers just in the first year of his master’s degree, he never imagined he would be the first young person recognized with the new Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lam’s love for food and interest in science came together when he began studying in Canada. As he learned about the complexities of food and bioproduct sciences, his own relationship with food “changed completely,” he says.
“Even something as simple as reading a food label is now fascinating to me,” he says.
“Understanding how food is made helped me to realize that it is so much more than simple nourishment. People are passionate about enjoying it, and do all sorts of practical things with it, like eat parsley to freshen breath.”
Lam, 25, is doing innovative research into edible fats and oils that could someday replace harmful fats in foods like margarine, chocolate and butter.
“The food industry is handcuffed right now,” says Lam’s supervisor, U of S professor of food and bioproduct sciences Michael Rogers. “There is a need to limit trans and saturated fats, but we don’t have a good replacement for them.”
Roughly every third patient aged 40 to 60 who walks into a family doctor’s office in Canada is at risk of heart disease due to metabolic syndrome–a condition associated with the consumption of sugar and unhealthy fats.
“Based on what Ricky learns, we can begin looking for different fats that can be used to make foods like crackers, potato chips or muffins, and promote good health at the same time,” Rogers says.
Trans fats, which are increasingly being removed from foods, add structure to baked foods, and were developed to keep food from spoiling. Perhaps more importantly, they add flavour.
“The structure and texture of fats are very important to taste. There’s a big difference between eating a chocolate and eating butter, which are both fats. Where chocolate melts pleasantly in your mouth, butter does not,” Lam says.
Lam uses the Canadian Light Source synchrotron at the U of S to observe, in much greater detail than he could with any other research tool, how fats crystallize.
“Once we find compounds that can structure oils, then we can tailor them for specific foods–without sacrificing taste,” he says.
One thing Lam experiments with is cooling fats at different rates, watching to see how they crystallize, or solidify, under varying circumstances. His goal is to understand how to control a fat’s structure so that it will melt in your mouth.
“We don’t understand how and why certain fat molecules crystallize. So we haven’t been able to find anything that mimics the very special behaviour of trans and saturated fats,” Rogers says. “If we did find a replacement, it would be completely by chance.”
So Lam, whose master’s research is supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant, is interested in going back to the basics, looking at the fundamental properties of fats on a molecular level.
Because the structure of fats and oils determines how some substances are absorbed by the body, Lam’s work could have broad applications beyond food production, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
He hopes to earn a PhD and teach at the U of S, following in the footsteps of professors who gave him lectures on food production so captivating “they could make you salivate.”
Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.
This article first ran as part of the 2010 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.