Newsletter: January 23, 2018

Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

Blockchain’s inherent transparency means safer food
IBMOriginally created for the digital currency Bitcoin, blockchain technology has the potential to disrupt a vast number of industries, including food, government, banking, and healthcare just to name a few. Companies are beginning to see blockchains—also known as distributed ledger technology—as an opportunity to overhaul their data management processes across a complex network.

Basically, blockchains are ledgers that are decentralized and distributed across peer-to-peer networks, and are continually updated and kept in sync. And since blockchains aren’t contained in a central location, they don’t have a single point of failure and therefore can’t be hacked. 

For the food industry, the benefits of blockchains are enhanced traceability and better auditing around the sourcing of products and ingredients, shipping dates, and expiration dates. Recently, Walmart and food giants such as Unilever and Dole teamed up with IBM to explore how to apply this new technology.

The group is using Hyperledger Fabric, a blockchain originally built by IBM and now housed under the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger group. Jonathan Levi, one of two release managers for Hyperledger Fabric 1.0, explained in an exclusive interview with IFTNEXT Newsletter that blockchain enables “businesses that have to deal with a lot of mandatory data protection requirements and handle sensitive information … to build and deploy decentralized applications to share information and collaborate with others.”

“There is always a need for transparency and better auditing around the sourcing of products and ingredients, shipping dates, and expiration dates,” said Levi. Additionally, increased transparency would empower the supply chain to be more responsive to any foodborne illness outbreaks and other recalls. “This makes it so much easier to track issues, recall products, and issue warnings in a much more timely and accurate manner,” Levi continued.

As a case in point, Walmart has already completed two pilots using blockchain to improve food safety. In one pilot, the retail giant conducted a traceback test on mangoes in one of its stores. It took almost seven days to trace the fruit back to its original farm using traditional methodologies. By using blockchain, Walmart was able to access the information in 2.2 seconds. 

“All in all, I believe that this transformation through working with distributed ledgers, better collaboration, and increased transparency will really boost and strengthen not just consumers’ confidence, but also each sellers—because they will have the tools to know much more about what is being sold at every step of the supply chain,” concluded Levi.


Raise a glass to probiotic beer
BeerProbiotics are trendy. Consumers can find them in all types of food products, from breakfast bars to juices. In the future, a novel probiotic beer may join these probiotic products. Researchers at the National University of Singapore developed a sour beer that includes probiotics, giving consumers who imbibe a chance to enjoy a beer and take in the health benefits of probiotics. 

The researchers took about nine months to formulate a beer with the optimal count of live probiotics (a minimum of 1 billion probiotics per serving, according to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics) to attain maximum health benefits. They propagated the probiotic and yeast in pure culture and modified conventional brewing and fermentation processes. The probiotic strain used was Lactobacillus paracasei L26, which according to the researchers, used the sugars present in the wort to produce sour-tasting lactic acid that gives the beer tart flavors. The beer takes about a month to brew and has an alcohol content of about 3.5%. It has a shelf life of three weeks under refrigeration.

The beer is currently under patent consideration, and a company called Probicient has been formed to commercialize the probiotic beer, according to Liu Shao Quan, associate professor, Food Science and Technology Program at the National University of Singapore. He adds that the next steps in the work on this beer include finding ways to extend the shelf life and refine the product.

The latter possibility is particularly important to Bartoshuk and her researchers. “My students and I are now collaborating with colleagues in horticulture. We are identifying which constituents in healthy foods are contributing the most to the pleasure experienced from those foods. This allows us to create ‘recipes’ for highly palatable fruits and vegetables that we can aim to create by cross-breeding (no genetically modified plants, I'm sorry to say, since there is so much prejudice against them).”


Fighting the flu with lactic acid bacteria
FluIn a study that may be likely to attract some attention given this year’s particularly nasty flu season in the United States, a research team led by a Georgia State University professor Sang-Moo Kang demonstrated that lactic acid bacteria may offer protection against different subtypes of influenza A virus. Specifically, the study explored the antiviral protective effects of a heat-killed strain of lactic acid bacteria, Lactobacillus casei DK128 (DK128), a probiotic derived from fermented vegetables. 

The researchers pretreated mice intranasally with heat-killed DK128 and then infected them with a lethal dose of influenza A virus. Mice pretreated with a low dose of DK128 survived the lethal infection, but lost 10% to 12% of their body weight. Pretreating mice with a higher dose allowed them to survive without any weight loss, while a group of mice that were not pretreated with DK128 all died after showing severe weight loss by days eight and nine of the study. Mice that received DK128 before being infected with the virus had about 18 times less influenza virus in their lungs compared to control mice.

As the current influenza outbreak has illustrated, vaccines often have limited efficacy against influenza virus infections. According to statistics cited by the study authors, viral influenza infections cause from 3 million to 5 million severe illnesses and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide during epidemics.

Kang says that it may be possible to use killed lactic acid bacteria in nasal spray form to help prevent flu outbreaks. For now, however, he notes that despite their limitations, vaccines are likely to be more efficacious and cost-effective in fighting the flu because the effects of killed lactic acid bacteria may be of very short duration.

Results of the study were published in December in the journal Scientific Reports.


Bean peptides may inhibit colon cancer and protect normal colon cells
BeansA recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was premised on the fact that current therapeutic efforts for colorectal cancer involve the use of chemotherapeutic drugs that may exhibit some effectiveness against colorectal cells but also administer a degree of general toxicity with each dose. The researchers were interested in identifying alternative therapies that could be just as effective without the risk of toxic side effects. The objective of the study was to determine whether peptides found in common beans would have deleterious effects on human colorectal cancer cells. “Peptides are short fragments of proteins. Proteins are formed by amino acids, but when you break proteins into short fragments, the fragments are called peptides,” says Diego Luna-Vital, a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s department of food science and human nutrition and the principal investigator of the study. “Depending on the disease, there are some amino acid compositions that are more likely to interact with enzymes related to diabetes, cancer, obesity, inflammation, etc.”

Luna-Vital and his research collaborators were the first to record the effects of peptides from beans in colon cancer cells. “We found five main peptides in a particular extract, and out of these peptides, two were potent in inhibiting the cancer cells,” Luna says. “However, the other three [peptides] that didn’t kill the cells had a protective effect on normal colon cells, protecting them from ulcerative stress.” Professor Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, who collaborated with Luna-Vital in the study, explains why certain plant foods have such potency: “Foods contain other compounds that are not nutrients, and they play a very key role in human health,” she says. 


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Published every Tuesday, this newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food.