Designing healthier foods — particle by particle: UMass scientist works at the nanoscale to fortify foods with vitamins and probiotics

  • David Julian McClements, who runs the Nanotechnology lab at UMass in his office with an the Nils Foss Excellent Award in Food Science he recently received for his research. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hayoun Song, a visiting scientist measures food properties in dressing to make them healthier while working in David Julian McClements’ Nanotechnology lab at UMass. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Julian McClements, in one of the Nanotechnology lab at UMass in his office with an the Nils Foss Excellent Award in Food Science he recently received for his research. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hayoun Song, a visiting scientist measures food properties in dressing to make them healthier while working in Julian McClementz Nanotechnology lab at UMass. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Julian McClements, who runs the Nanotechnology lab at UMass in his office with an the Nils Foss Excellent Award in Food Science he recently received for his research. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2020 9:34:09 AM
Modified: 1/8/2020 9:33:34 AM

David Julian McClements is a food scientist that thinks like a structural architect. In his line of work, he examines the molecular organization of fruits and vegetables in an attempt to increase their nutritional properties.

In other words, he makes food healthier.

“We use nanotechnology to try to increase the viability of vitamins A, D and E or other healthy ingredients in food, like carrots and peppers, that often have low viability,” McClements said in a recent interview. “Only a little gets absorbed by the human body and we are trying to design food matrix to increase the amount absorbed by the body.”

His research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the past 25 years has delved into designing functional foods at the nanoscale level that are fortified with probiotics or nutraceuticals, which are the parts of food with medical benefits. He is a distinguished professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, has penned several scientific books and articles, and recently, his research gained international acclaim.

Last month, McClements received the 2019 Nils Foss Prize for his work in food design and nanotechnology at a ceremony in Hillerod, Denmark. Along with the award, he received a cash prize of 100,000 euros that will go towards new equipment and research into plant-based food, 3-D food printing and nano-enabled nutraceuticals.

“One big area related to the award is plant-based food,” McClements said. “We try to understand the molecular architecture of meat, eggs and milk from animals and try to mimic them with plant-based ingredients.”

His competitors in this field include the makers of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, a company that makes plant-based burgers, beef and sausage, which McClements said are “creating incredibly sophisticated products.”

And even for an accomplished scientist like McClements, the science of mimicking meat is complicated.

A computer can analyze the DNA sequencing of foods produced by animals, such as milk or meat, and take that sequence and use it to grow the same proteins using microbes, like bacteria or yeast, and grow them outside of an animal. At the molecular level, McClements and his colleagues are developing ways to produce plant-based foods that mimic the properties of foods made from animals.

Don’t expect him to be sampling any plant-based meats out of his lab, however.

“We rarely use real food,” he said. “We work more with model systems.”

The lab at UMass is outfitted with millions of dollars worth of equipment used to find out what’s happening at the nanoscale level in food. There are lasers used to measure the size of particles in food. There are instruments that measure the molecular phenomena that occur when food is cooked, turning from liquids to solids, and looking at what happens to proteins in those instances.

With the earnings of the prize, McClements expects to invest in new equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, chemicals and other supplies.

Some of the investment in equipment will go towards robots that test plant-based foods. The robots will provide objective recordings of a food’s property, such as texture and mouth feel, to gauge their appeal, according to McClements.

“Instead of people tasters, we will use some robotic methods,” he said. “Instruments similar to how mouth and eyes and fingers work. The advantage is that everyone is different. If you ask someone to taste test, everyone has different answers but if a machine has consistent results time after time, the result will be more objective.”

A goal of his is to develop food that allows the body to absorb sugar more slowly. Sugars and starches are broken down quickly in the body, which McClements said can lead to diabetes or heart disease.

Through his research examining the molecular level of food, it opens up the possibility of controlling and designing the characteristics in order to improve the quality of food that people consume.

His research on food is also a scientific exploration into how humans might eat in the future.

McClements predicts that in the not-so-distant future, people will have 3-D printers at home that will have dinner ready by the time they get out of work. People will simply use their phones to type in what they want for dinner, probably a personalized dish, that will be printed out and ready to eat at a scheduled time. It’s not too far off from the reality of today, he added. Already 3D-printers can download recipes from online and print cakes or chocolates.

“You can take a 3D image of yourself and print it out and put it on your wedding cake,” McClements said.

Another area of McClements’ research involves finding ways to make nutritional food for astronauts on years-long missions into space.

For NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars, McClements is working on ways to feed these interplanetary explorers. Since the trip would take many years to complete, the food astronauts take with them need to have vitamins that do not degrade over time. His research will delve into ways to develop food that will protect them from potential diseases, bone decay and vitamin deficiencies.

“It’s an exciting area to work in,” McClements said about food science. “From the molecular level, to human psychology, to trying to save the plant — we’ve got greenhouse emissions related to food — animal cruelty and animals being killed … Plant-based food deals with a lot of these ethical issues.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy