Exciting new frontiers

Food scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Health and Wellness are investigating more economical and reliable ways to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into foods, reports FoodBusinessnews.com. In development are new microgel capsules to trap the omega-3 fatty acids, chemically stabilize them to prevent spoilage, and allow them to be easily incorporated in beverages, yogurts, dressings, desserts, ice cream and other foods without sacrificing taste, appearance or texture.

In previous studies, Julian McClements, an expert in food-based delivery systems, and his team found that certain milk and soy proteins are good at preventing omega-3 fatty acids from going rancid. They now want to find a way to economically produce large amounts of powdered omega-3 microgel particles rich in these antioxidant proteins from food-grade materials. Concentrating on new structural techniques for surrounding the delicate fish oils in a protective biopolymer microgel of water, antioxidant protein, and dietary fiber, they say these microgel particles resemble Jell-o, except that they are microscopic.

Food as medicine is an unfamiliar concept to many American consumers, according to McClements and Eric Decker, chair of the UMass Amherst food science department and co-director of its Center for Health and Wellness. Many do not remember the first wave of nutraceuticals introduced in the 1940s and 1950s when vitamin-fortified flour, cereals and milk were unbelievably successful in eliminating once-common diseases such as goiter and rickets caused by vitamin deficiencies, Decker notes. While its becoming more common to hear of consumers picking up blueberry juice as a hedge against memory loss or whole-grain bread to ward off colon cancer, the U.S. remains one of the least receptive countries to the idea of food as preventive medicine compared to places like Japan and New Zealand.
This new generation of food scientists hopes to build on the earlier successes to address modern public health problems, more widespread but perhaps no less disabling and costly to society -- obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer.  UMass Amherst researchers like McClements are not only looking at cheaper, more reliable ways to incorporate nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids in food, but at molecules known as phytosterols from oats, for example, that can lower cholesterol, and flavonoids in orange peel that show promise for killing cancer cells.

With recent new grants from the USDA, McClements is already looking ahead to the next big thing in nutraceuticals: Time-release nanolaminated coatings around fat droplets for delivery at different levels in the human body. For example, he and colleagues are learning to coat droplets with dietary fibers so some will break down in the mouth to deliver flavor immediately, others might break down in the stomach or small intestine to deliver peptides that signal fullness or satiety, and some might break down in the large intestine, where the laminated droplets would deliver anti-hypertensive or cancer-fighting food compounds that can’t survive digestive acids in the stomach. By manipulating food structure, the team is exploring ways to increase solubility in the small intestine so more of the nutrients are absorbed.

McClements predicts that tailoring foods to an individual’s genetic makeup will be the future frontier.