Microspheres add flavors, vitamins, fragrance and cooling agents to foods.
Have you ever overcooked a frozen pizza and wished the pizza could have told you it was ready a few minutes earlier? It’s not impossible. The pizza maker merely has to manufacture the pizza to emit a specific flavor when it’s ready, using something called microspheres.
Just a few microns in diameter, microspheres are hollow spheres made of polymers, starches or waxes that can contain a large variety of materials such as flavors, vitamins, fragrance and cooling agents. Almost every major company in the food and cosmetics industry, including firms like Hershey‘s ( HSY – news – people ), Procter & Gamble ( PG – news – people ) and Estee Lauder, is using or looking into using microspheres. They’re also being used increasingly in ceramic and glass form to make better grinding machines and to make road paint more reflective.
One popular application for microspheres is for adding vitamins and minerals to foods, as consumers become more intent on better living. Nutrients such as Vitamin C and iron will lose their potency when exposed to air for long periods of time. So energy bar manufacturers are using microspheres to keep nutrients fresh. According to foodprocessing.com, a few examples of energy bars using microspheres are the Ohmama Bar and Hershey’s controlled-release SmartZone energy bar.
Microspheres are also being used to add heart-healthy but smelly fish oil to bread. Several bakers, including Wegmans Food Markets of Rochester, N.Y., use micro-encapsulated fish oil so they can mask the odor but still be able to bake breads containing them. Microspheres used in food must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are made of complex carbohydrates (like certain starches) or other natural materials that could be found in your kitchen.
Microspheres can change function easily just by changing the composition of the outer shell. Microspheres with water-soluble shells could be used inside baby diapers to release a pleasant fragrance when the baby has just peed. P&G already has several patents granted that use microspheres inside diapers in creative ways. Here is a 1998 patent that talks about microspheres that crack open and release perfume when removing the diaper from the baby.
Unilever about a year ago launched a version of its Persil fabric conditioner containing microcapsules that latch onto clothing and burst open to release their fragrance by the friction of movement by the wearer
Salvona, a privately held specialty ingredients manufacturer that is a supplier to companies such as P&G and Estee Lauder, has seen its sales increase 30% over the last year. It manufactures and sells microspheres for about $40-$60 per pound that go into such things as frozen pizza to release flavored ingredients when cooked.
What you can encapsulate inside a microsphere is limited only by your imagination and purpose. A class of microspheres that reacts to a change in acidity could be used to create stomach-friendly drinks for people who would normally have to take anti-acid tablets. The microspheres in the drink would do the job by releasing anti-acid before the stomach ache even happens.
Liquor companies could invent some pretty entertaining drinks. A fun idea would be to use acid-activated microspheres in a line of “Magic Cocktails.” When you add lemon to a Magic Cocktail, you could get a completely different flavor along with a surprising color. (Salvona confirmed that both the anti-acid and the Magic Cocktail idea are technically possible.)
Kimberly-Clark ( KMB – news – people ) makes Huggies wipes that consumers are using for more then just cleaning, but also for cooling and refreshing their skin. Here is a patent Kimberly-Clark was issued in 2008 that talks about wet wipes with microspheres containing heating or cooling agents.
A more far-fetched idea could be a spray with heat-sensitive microcapsules containing a skin-friendly liquid that evaporated quickly. If this was possible, these capsules would instantly cool the body (through evaporation) and potentially prevent people from sweating in unfavorable times.
A newer class of microspheres can now offer multiple effects. Sam Shefer, chief executive of Salvona, had me try a surprising prototype lip balm that his team developed. It tastes orange at first, but after a few moments gives a cooling minty sensation. How it works is simple. Microspheres containing the orange flavor also contain nanospheres that give the cooling sensation. Salvona can manufacture ones that contain up to five distinct ingredients giving different sensations and effects.
Salvona sees the greatest potential in skin care. They can manufacture microspheres that first exfoliate (remove dead skin) and then release nanospheres with salicylic acid to prevent acne. What is great about this idea is that conventional products containing salicylic acid dry out your skin. But with this technology, the microspheres containing the salicylic acid only react with an enzyme that is produced on the acne. So the salicylic acid is delivered only to the acne and nowhere else.
In a time where consumers are asking for organic and unadulterated products, the idea of engineered intelligent foods and cosmetics may be a tough sell. Unlike a few years ago, it is extremely difficult to find any public information on efforts to develop engineered foods. In the early 2000s, Kraft was part of a large consortium called Nanotek set up to explore the applications of nanotechnology. Kraft had announced its efforts to develop customizable foods, including a drink for which the taste could be customized by the consumer using microwaves and nanospheres. Kraft pulled its support of nanotech in foods in 2004 after public outcry.
Salvona says it has not seen a drop in demand. On the contrary, it has seen a greater demand in recent years from the food industry. Consumers have the last say on what products will dominate our future, and manufacturers are listening closely. It is certain that consumers are craving healthier foods that will improve their well-being and the microsphere industry definitely has a lot to offer in creating products that will make our lives easier, healthier and more fun.
Osman Can Ozcanli was the head researcher of Inventables, helping companies such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Herman Miller innovate. He is now an independent designer who invents consumer productsfor multi-national companies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.