Three ACES departments awarded water activity meters, manuals
February 3, 2011
URBANA - Teaching the food scientists of tomorrow can be tricky when you have around 400 students and only one water activity instrument. With the award of two brand new, state-of-the-art water activity meters and lab manuals for all students involved in the courses that will use them, things just got a little easier for the University of Illinois Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

"Water activity is a vitally important concept in food science. The microbial, chemical, and physical stability and the quality of food ingredients and products are intimately linked to water activity," said Shelly J. Schmidt, a U of I professor of food chemistry.

The meters and lab manuals, part of an AquaLab Educational grant, are worth over $15,000, she said.

"This gift means students will be able to do more hands-on learning rather than just hearing about the theory of water activity from one of their professors," she added.

What is water activity? "Water activity is the measurement of the energy status of the water, as opposed to water content in a product, which only refers to how much water there is. It is directly tied to predicting food stability and safety," she said.

Other departments in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences to receive the benefits of the meters and lab manuals are Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Animal Sciences.

All of the departments that will benefit from this grant have committed to include a water activity demonstration or lab in their courses to teach their students about the basics of water activity. The broad reach of students using the instruments was a key component to their winning the new instrumentation, Schmidt said.

Outside of classroom use, researchers in the departments will also be able to make considerable gains in their own research studies from the instruments. The meters will be used in research that tests texture quality in foods, controls microbial growth in meat processing, and studies the shelf life of food products.

The AquaLab Educational grant is a special project of Decagon Devices, Inc., which fosters working partnerships with universities and provides much needed resources for research and teaching. The AquaLab water activity meter is used in various applications throughout the world, including determining shelf life and assuring product safety and quality in the manufacture of food and pharmaceuticals manufacturing.