The Dutch consumer goods firm has carved out a special area dedicated to structured emulsions at its existing facilities in Vlaardingen (The Netherlands), Dijon (France) and Englewood Cliffs (USA).
The centres, which together employ some 225 R&D professionals, will be see work in the areas of fat technology - modification and crystallisation - and emulsifier structuring, formulation and processing.
Unilever has also said that it will be looking into the use of ingredients such as citrus fibres as alternatives to high-cost commodities like rape seed oil.
The high cost of commodities has led to a margin crunch throughout the food production chain. By developing its own solutions, Unilever looks to be shrugging off some of the burden from suppliers who have to pass on some of their own additional costs in order to stay profitable.
In addition, Unilever is looking to tap further into what has now become a major driver for the industry - healthier foods. It hopes the R&D investment will lead to new ways for healthier oils, such as essential fatty acid, and functional ingredients to be used in foods, as well as the minimisation of saturated and trans fats.
Vlaardingen will also be the company's centre for European packaging technology, with a particular focus on tubs, pots and glass packaging.
A spokesperson told FoodNavigator.com that the technologies developed at the sites will be, for now, just for use by Unilever in its own products.
"I cannot look into a crystal ball, but there are no plans to expand to the outside world," he said.
The company does, however, operate a system of "open innovation" under which it works with other scientists and external partners.
Unilever also sources some of its emulsifiers from Danisco, which was its partner in a 3.16m tall emulsifier sculpture which was unveiled at the opening ceremony in Vlaardingen yesterday, and as the world's highest sculpture of its kind, is said to "symbolise the ambition for the new R&D centre: to be the world champion in structured emulsions and their applications in tasty, healthy and convenient foods".
As to why Unilever is maintaining the three-legged set up of its structured emulsions R&D in The Netherlands, France and the US, the spokesperson said it is "all about efficiency", and it was not logical to move the existing knowledge all to one place, such as Dijon, for instance.
Unilever is the world's largest consumer goods company. In full year 2007 it reported turnover of €40.19bn and net profit from continuing operations of €4.06bn.