Much more than just chocolate

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Erich Windhab is fascinated equally by the field of engineering and the global c

Erich Windhab is fascinated equally by the field of engineering and the global challenges of our times. (Photograph: Daniel Winkler / ETH Zurich)

He might have been known to the general public as the "Chocolate Professor", but the newly retired ETH professor Erich Windhab was interested in much more than just indulgence. He also dedicated himself to issues of global food security and sustainability.

On his desk sits a toy that he immediately demonstrates - a floating spinning top that centres and stabilises itself using superimposed magnetic fields. Erich Windhab, newly retired ETH Professor of Food Process Technology, draws parallels with research: "Scientists must have their own playgrounds, be prepared to step into no-man’s land and stick it out for a while." For Windhab, that is the prerequisite for innovation. "If we were to ignore these playgrounds and become overly entrepreneurial, we would slowly go blind." This might initially sound like a paean to pure research, but this is definitely not the case.

The food engineer is passionate about putting his research into practice. He founded his first company even before completing his doctoral thesis at the Institute of Mechanical Process Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Karlsruhe - a move that was highly unusual at the time. "But I had a positive environment, with good supervisors who helped make it possible," he recalls. And it wasn’t the only company he founded.

Publications and patents

The entrepreneurial environment was another main reason why Windhab was drawn to ETH Zurich in 1992. "The newly founded Technopark was appealing, as were the general conditions there," says Windhab. And he went on to successfully build on this solid foundation. In addition to countless scientific publications, the engineer has also published more than 70 ETH-related patents. "A research engineer not only has a scientific audience, but also an industrial one."

Windhab is fascinated by the world of patents, especially by the precision and sophistication of the language used to put inventions into words. And he still helps to write patent specifications today. He has also represented companies as a private expert before the Royal Patents Court in the UK and the Federal Court of Justice in Germany in patent revocation disputes.

His efforts in terms of knowledge transfer have also often won him various prizes. For example, he received the European FoodTec Award in 2003 for a new chocolate crystallisation process. The process first produces a crystal suspension with customised crystal nuclei from cocoa butter, which is then used to inoculate the chocolate mass before pouring. This helps the chocolate retain its glossy appearance for longer, because it doesn’t turn grey as quickly due to fat bloom.

Another example is the International Nestlé Innovation Award he received in 2006 for a novel technology for making ice cream. Annual sales of a product based on this technology later amounted to over USD 500 million. "That was a sensation!" says Windhab. "Success in the market is an important confirmation of our work in the lab." The awards he has won for his life’s work also reflect the great success of his approach to translating research results into industrial applications. In 2003, he was the first food engineer to receive the Blaise Pascal Medal from the European Academy of Sciences (EAS), an award that holds special personal significance for him.

Building bridges

The internationally renowned researcher is not bothered by his reputation in the Swiss media as the "Chocolate Professor". Windhab says, grinning: "In the context of chocolate, you could also refer to me as the person who found and applied novel things in the dynamics of shear flow-induced structure formation in polymorphously crystallising triglyceride melting. But then the target audience would have been much smaller and made up exclusively of scientists." Windhab is aware that the enjoyment, sustainability and health aspects of food have a particular emotional significance and as such are becoming increasingly relevant to the general public.

For Windhab, chocolate is also a bridge to cocoa-producing countries, some of which are among the poorest in the world. Windhab was able to gain valuable experience in this area soon after his appointment at ETH. "I was given a unique opportunity to work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation." Switzerland has traditionally led a specialist group in the field of chocolate and cocoa, and he became its chairman. The first meeting was held in Bern in 1997, with around 130 country delegations.

Windhab was required to learn a new language for this activity - the language of diplomacy. It was important to leave aside the factual scientific language and the long-winded, meticulously descriptive language of patent lawyers. A fascinating new world opened up to him.
Windhab recalls: "There was a culture of consensus. There’s no global legislation aimed at ensuring the strict enforcement of Codex Alimentarius decisions. But if you sign on the basis of consensus and on behalf of your country, then it’s a matter of honour to comply." He had to learn to move towards a goal in very small steps - it took more than a decade, for example, to include five percent of tropical fats other than cocoa butter in the Codex chocolate guideline. "This nuance was of fundamental economic importance for producer countries and their cocoa farmers," Windhab emphasises.

Committed to sustainability

Global problems in the food system have kept Windhab busy, and will continue to do so. The fact that human nutrition has a huge influence on both areas - health and the environment - makes his field of research particularly exciting for Windhab. "Poor diets or a lack of food are one side of the problem," says Windhab. "The way in which some food is produced leads to increasing environmental problems if not managed sustainably. We behave as if we had three planets, but there’s really only one!"

The sustainability aspect has always been part of Windhab’s research. "Today, of course, we focus even more on this issue, having become louder and more visible in this regard," says Windhab. "Also because the global idea of sustainability is increasingly being incorporated into the thinking of a broader population."

Windhab has also helped to create spin-offs in the field of sustainability, the most recent of which is Groam, which develops foamed plastics from biowaste. Two years ago, the spin-off Micropow emerged from his ETH team. The company specialises in producing encapsulated colours and flavours that are preserved in a consumer-friendly way during product manufacture and storage, and are released during food preparation or consumption. This makes it possible to save on ingredients, because they aren’t lost during production and storage.

But the spin-off making the biggest waves right now is called Planted. "The new company develops meat substitutes based on peas, and is deservedly winning prize after prize," says Windhab. Planted now employs around 120 people. Windhab is proud of this achievement by two of his doctoral students: "I’m really pleased we were able to get off to such a great start with Planted at ETH despite Covid-19 restrictions, and that other former members of my group have also moved on to continue their scientific and professional careers at Planted."

Windhab provides valuable support to the start-ups in the initial stages. "The founders are, or were, members of my lab family," says Windhab. "The atmosphere in the lab always felt like being around extended family." He is highly appreciative of his staff and worked hard to nurture a sense of community. "After the second or third generation of doctoral students, I realised that my alumni are the best multipliers of good development ideas." This also further enhanced his attitude towards teaching. "Educating the right people and guiding them onto the right path has a greater impact on society than anything I can do myself."

Spending time with his people is something he values a lot. Windhab is convinced that "coffee in the morning and beer in the evening are the most creative platforms". Even during the pandemic, he has been working on cultivating exchange as far as the situation allows.

Just don’t get bogged down

Windhab also maintains exchanges with other ETH professorships, and has worked on joint projects on the topic of deficiency symptoms in developing countries. For example, scientists have succeeded in encapsulating iron, vitamin A and/or iodine-containing supplements in rice or salt. "Nutritionally speaking, these were great products, but they were often not economically sustainable without government or other support," laments Windhab. "They were sometimes much too expensive for local markets." He’s not ready to admit defeat, however. "This continues to be one of the biggest technological challenges for me. Process technology is one of the things we need to rethink in terms of healthy and sustainable nutrition that people can afford, even in developing countries."

Exactly where he will focus his energies after retirement is still under review. He certainly has no shortage of ideas. "If I think about everything that interests me, it would all be far too much. I have to learn to be a bit more selective," says Windhab. "Not to end up with a diffuse blend, but to bring together things that I’ve done and that offer a challenging outlook going forward." One thing is certain: his family is a big priority. "In that respect, I have some catching up to do after a fulfilling professional life."

He will continue to enjoy making music, immersing himself in the different worlds of classical, jazz and rock - just as he playfully juggled scientific thinking, the world of patents and consensus finding in the UN. "The variety helps you to avoid getting bogged down in one particular world." He’s a chocolate professor who likes to be seen from different angles.

Erich Windhab farewell lecture

Engineering Bubbles, Chocolate and PhDs - My ETH, 21 September 2021, 5.15 p.m. - 6.15 p.m., Zurich Zentrum HG F 30 (Auditorium Maximum). Admission is free. Access with Covid certificate and ID only.

Please register in advance with .

Corinne Johannssen

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