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Lumen Summer 2013 Issue
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Bourne's food identity

When you stop and think about it, why do you eat certain foods?

Flavour is obviously important, as is colour - and you'd think nutritional value is a factor too.

But what about how it feels?

For Professor Malcolm Bourne (BSc 1949), the question of food's feel, or texture, has become his life's work.

And perhaps surprisingly, he ranks a food's nutritional value as the last of its four quality attributes.

"The four quality attributes of food are colour, flavour, texture and nutrition," he said.

"And I put nutrition last in this list because if the colour, flavour and texture do not meet a person's expectation, the food is not eaten and there is no nutrition."

Professor Bourne has been based at prestigious US Ivy League university Cornell since 1962, becoming a world authority on food texture.

"During my 50 years at Cornell, we have developed a good understanding of what texture is, why it is important, and how to measure it," he said.

"We didn't start with much. When I came to Cornell I was asked to research texture of food - a new area for me. After reading the literature I found the food industry did not have a clear understanding of what is meant by 'texture'.

"There was no science - there were few instruments to measure it, and these were simple, empirical gadgets.

"So I purchased a state-of-the-art strength of materials testing machine to study the physical properties of food in a rigorous, scientific manner based on physics and materials science.

"The food industry found this work useful, and now thousands of strength of materials testing machines modified for use on foods are used throughout the world."

Professor Bourne says texture provides an answer to an even more basic question of why we eat at all.

"It may seem mundane, because we all do it all of the time, but chewing is a gratifying sensation," he said.

"From a nutritional standpoint, we could have a completely adequate diet in the form of fluids that can be simply swallowed with no chewing - but it seems very few of us want to be deprived of that gratifying sensation of chewing our food.

"You only have to look at the size of the dental industry to see how important chewing is to us.

"As our tooth function deteriorates with age, we undergo the inconvenience and cost of dental care that restores tooth function and enables us to continue to enjoy the textural sensations that arise from chewing our food."

Professor Bourne's interest in science - and in particular, chemistry - started at high school and continued through to an Industrial Chemistry diploma with the South Australian School of Mines and Industries (now University of South Australia).

Due to a new agreement with the University of Adelaide, he was able to articulate the diploma into a full Bachelor of Science, which included attending classes by renowned professors MacBeth, Mawson and Kerr Grant.

Remarkably, Professor Bourne's interest in the chemistry of food began simply because of his commute.

"My first job out of uni was at a food company called Mumzone - it was only 10 minutes away from my house, whereas the heavy chemical companies in fields like paint or fertilisers were much further away," he said.

"I was the first 'food chemist', or scientist, they'd employed.
"Because the Australian food industry wasn't up to the task of feeding the entire Pacific Basin armed forces in World War II, companies like Mumzone realised that science could help them do a better job in areas like canning and dehydration.

"It was an act of faith on Mumzone's part; they did not know what I should do and neither did I. I had to walk around the factory, translate what I saw into scientific terms and then figure out how to make things better and how to control problems that arose."

After 10 years in industry, Professor Bourne headed to the US to further his academic qualifications (with a MSc and PhD at the University of California-Davis) before joining Cornell and embarking on research which has made an impact on the lives of millions.

"The University of Adelaide and South Australian School of Mines and Industries gave me an excellent education in chemistry that served me well as I developed my career," he said.

"I will always be thankful for that solid grounding that started me on my career path and served me well along the way."

story by Ben Osborne

Emeritus Professor of Food Science Malcolm Bourne.
Photo by Calum Robertson courtesy of <i>AdelaideNow</i>

Emeritus Professor of Food Science Malcolm Bourne.
Photo by Calum Robertson courtesy of AdelaideNow

Full Image (92.52K)

Professor Bourne on his graduation day in 1949 with his twin sister Margaret (now Ewins), who graduated from Adelaide Teachers College at the same time.

Professor Bourne on his graduation day in 1949 with his twin sister Margaret (now Ewins), who graduated from Adelaide Teachers College at the same time.
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