Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is used for body scanning, particularly to monitor brain activity. But for the first time, industrial scientists are adapting it to develop a tomato ketchup that can pour without sticking.
For most people, watching food travel around someone else's mouth is considered bad manners. But scientists are using MRI to scan the brains and mouths of people while eating, to detect exactly how the food breaks up in the mouth and pinpoint its texture.
"This is the first time in the world MRI has been used in this way. We have adapted the technology to look at food and fluids," said Professor Laurie Hall, who leads the team at the Herchel Smith Laboratory for Medicinal Chemistry in Cambridge.
The way MRI works is to map the distribution of water molecules and the other substances around it. What the scientists are doing, both in examining the mouth and also in separate experiments pushing food through a pipe, is to map the distribution in margarine and then re-create the pattern by using fat substitutes such as polysaccharides. By re-creating the same pattern it ensures the texture or "mouth feel" of the food is the same.
The technique is also helping create a low-fat margarine that tastes like butter, which should be fully developed and on the shelves within two years.
"What we're doing is helping to create more healthy foods so that people can have a more healthy diet," said Professor Hall, who is doing the work with industrial giant Unilever.
In a similar - but slightly less health-conscious - experiment the scientists measure how much force it takes to propel ketchup down a pipe.