Study Seeks to Understand, Prevent Ice Recrystallization

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NSF Grant Should Improve Long-term Cold Storage of Everything from Foods to Medicines

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Have you ever wondered why ice grows ‘out of nowhere’ on that pizza or ice cream you forgot about in the back of your freezer? The phenomenon is called ice recrystallization, and it’s a problem that affects the quality and functional properties of anything stored in a freezer for an extended period. That could include that long-overlooked pizza, ice cream and other foods, and even items and materials stored at commercial facilities like biomedical tissues, cell cultures and certain chemicals.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have been awarded $550,000 from the National Science Foundation to understand the ice recrystallization and to study the mechanisms on how to restrict the growth of ice crystals caused by fluctuations in freezing temperatures. Tong (Toni) Wang and Vermont Dia, both with the Department of Food Science, say successful methods of ice recrystallization inhibition (IRI) should improve the quality of frozen foods. Wang says, “IRI also has the potential to increase the resistance of crops and other plants to freezing temperatures, improve the cold storage of cells and tissues and other items needed to advance biomedical research, and even improve the properties and functionality of materials like de-icers for aircrafts or roads.”

Although synthetic chemicals can be used as ice growth inhibitors, their wide application is limited due to toxicity. Over the course of the three-year grant period, Wang and Dia will seek to understand how biobased and non-toxic peptides act as IRI agents. The peptides will be prepared from food proteins through enzymatic hydrolysis reactions, which is how protein breaks down in water in our digestive system. The researchers also plan to examine how structural modifications to the peptides can enhance their IRI effect. Benjamin Doughty, with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is a collaborator for spectroscopic characterization of the IRI active peptides.

The grant includes college-level STEM education, including to underrepresented groups of graduate and undergraduate students. Wang and Dia say the training should increase students’ understanding of the role of fundamental chemistry in advancing science. “It will have a long-lasting impact on the students’ appreciation of applying basic knowledge in problem solving. The students will also grow in key skills to become future biomaterial researchers through leadership training and introduction to FDA and EPA regulations of new biobased compounds and intellectual property protection and technology adoption.”

“We are thrilled that the NSF has recognized the breadth of the science as well as its potential practical impacts on society and future scientists,” Wang emphasizes.

Through its land-grant mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions.

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Toni Wang, Food Science

Vermont Dia, Food Science