Newsletter: January 30, 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.

Quinoa compounds may slow aging process
QuinoaThe fountain of youth may be embedded in quinoa seeds, according to a recent study. Researchers at Rutgers University and North Carolina State University (NCSU) used an unusual animal model to determine whether phytonutrients found in quinoa seeds could slow the aging process. “We all know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables benefits our health, but once committed to the dietary change, is there anything else we can do to further improve our nutrition?” asks study co-author Slavko Komarnytsky, an associate professor at NCSU’s Plants for Human Health Institute. He and his collaborators from Rutgers University are attempting to answer that question by studying the metabolic effects of quinoa compounds. “Quinoa contains all essential amino acids, [so] its protein is complete and particularly beneficial for those whose diets are low [in] animal protein,” Komarnytsky says. “Quinoa is unique in being one of the few foods high in dietary ecdysteroids that exert positive effects on metabolism and energy balance, especially on muscle, bone, and skin.”

Aging involves more than just sagging skin, wrinkles, and loss of muscle; it also involves the decline of energy metabolism and mitochondrial function. Komarnytsky and his colleagues used an animal model that ages rapidly—C. elegans, a nematode worm—to determine whether quinoa leachate could slow the metabolic signs of aging that most mammals exhibit. Nematode worms “have a short lifespan, which is critical for aging studies,” Komarnytsky points out, they have metabolic genes that are similar to those in mammals, and “they age similar to humans.” After administering the quinoa leachate to the nematode worms, he and his colleagues saw improvements in lifespan, locomotor performance, and mitochondrial bioenergetics and reductions in the presence of advanced glycation end products, reactive oxygen species, and body fat.

Such results firmly establish quinoa as a superfood, which Komarnytsky defines as a nutrient-dense food with a unique phytochemical profile. “Its complete protein profile and dietary ecdysteroids clearly differentiate it from other crops and are likely to support healthy metabolism, energy balance, and aging when consumed regularly,” Komarnytsky says. Still, he cautions that further preclinical and clinical studies are necessary to confirm the study’s findings. Another source of bioactive ecdysteroids is spinach.


Improvements in electronics may hasten robots’ arrival in kitchens
Robotic HandRobots have been used in the food industry for years now, although mainly in downstream production processes, such as fulfillment operations and packaging. This has helped increase performance, maximize order fulfillment efficiency, and prevent worker injuries. However, improvements in electronics and a desire for cost savings and increased productivity lead analysts to believe that robotics will soon become commonplace in all aspects of the food industry. According to a Research and Markets’ report, the global food robotics market is expected to reach $2.15 billion by 2022 supported by a CAGR of 12.5% during the forecast period of 2017–2022.

As technology improves, robots are beginning to be utilized more heavily in upstream food production processes, such as filling, capping, and high-speed picking and sorting. They have the added benefit of promoting a safer environment by eliminating the human-introduced unpredictability and errors. In addition, labor shortages in the foodservice segment could mean that we will soon see robots in the kitchen chopping the potatoes or prepping the proteins. Just as Ray Kroc revolutionized the foodservice industry by implementing a system that provided food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation, so too could robots take efficiency, quality, and safety to the next level.

But to get there robots need to be a lot smarter and more adaptable than they currently are. Helping to make this happen is a research team from the University of Houston that has made a breakthrough in stretchable electronics by creating a semiconductor in a rubber composite form. This allows the electrical components to function even after the material is stretched by up to 50%.

What does this have to do with robots? The stretchable electronics can be used as an artificial skin, allowing a robotic hand to sense temperature, strain, and pressure. “Conventional semiconductors are all brittle and inflexible,” explains lead researcher Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston. “For more than a few decades, no semiconductor could be stretched even to a very small extent. To use traditional semiconductors for stretchable electronics, extra steps of building sophisticated structures needed to be used to release or to circumvent the mechanical strain. Our work is a breakthrough in semiconductors.”

This technology can impact multiple industries, including wearable electronics, medical implants, and the food industry. A robotic hand that can accurately sense pressure would be better able to move food products on a production line that are inconsistent in size and shape than a standard robot. In addition, one can easily imagine restaurants’ kitchens with robots at all the prep stations and perhaps cooking next to the chef.

“This technology can potentially reduce the associated cost in food manufacturing and foodservice,” says Yu. “I expect that benefit will be realized in a few years to come.”


Boosting nutrients in corn with biotechnology
CornCorn is the world’s largest commodity crop grown for both human and animal consumption. A problem is that it lacks methionine, an essential amino acid found in meat, so synthetic methionine is added to field corn. Researchers at Rutgers University found a way to insert a bacterial gene into corn that causes it to produce methionine, helping to boost the nutritional profile of this important crop and eliminating the need to use synthetic methionine, which increases costs to farmers.

“It is a costly, energy-consuming process,” says Joachim Messing, professor at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. “Methionine is added because animals won’t grow without it. In many developing countries where corn is a staple, methionine is also important for people, especially children. It’s vital nutrition, like a vitamin.” The hope is that the method developed by the Rutgers researchers will lead to reduced animal feed costs and help people in developing countries in South America and Africa who depend on corn as a main food source.

The researchers inserted a gene from E. coli into the corn plant’s genome and grew several generations of corn. The E. coli enzyme 3’-phosphoadenosine-5’-phosphosulfate reductase triggered the production of methionine, and as a result, the methionine level in the corn kernels increased by 57%. Methionine is required for growth and tissue repair and to improve the flexibility of skin and hair. The research study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Plant ‘tattoos’ aid development of drought-tolerant crops
Plant TattooThe effects of water shortage on crops can be devastating, making irrigation management a valuable tool for farmers. However, until recently, “there was not a near-instantaneous, field-deployable method to measure water status,” says Patrick Schnable, Iowa State University plant scientist. Enter the plant tattoo, a graphene-based sensor-on-tape developed by Schnable’s colleague, Liang Dong, Iowa State University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Dong created the device, which measures water use in crops, by indenting patterns on the surface of a polymer block, then applying a liquid graphene solution to fill the indented patterns. A strip of tape was used to remove the excess graphene, and another was used to pull away the graphene patterns, creating the sensor-on-tape. The process can produce precise patterns as small as 5 millionths of a meter wide—just a twentieth of the diameter of the average human hair. The miniscule patterns increase the sensitivity of the sensors.

In the case of plant studies, the sensors, dubbed plant tattoos, are made with graphene oxide, a material very sensitive to water vapor. The presence of water vapor changes the conductivity of the material, which can be quantified to accurately measure transpiration from a leaf. And because the sensors are so small, says Dong, “they won’t affect plant growth or crop production.”

“Plant tattoo sensors will enable breeders to identify hybrids that are likely to perform better under drought stress prior to conducting large-scale yield tests,” says Schnable. “This should speed the development of more drought-tolerant crops.” Additionally, farmers who use the sensors will be better able to decide how much water to apply via irrigation. “Our vision,” says Schnable, “is that someday these sensors will communicate with irrigation systems and thereby ensure that crops receive the optimal amount of water.” After appropriate modification, the sensors could also be used to test crops for diseases or pesticides.

Future study, says Schnable, will focus on “understand[ing] how differences in humidity levels on particular leaves of particular crop varieties signal need for additional irrigation.” In the meantime, Schnable, Dong, and two other colleagues plan to commercialize the technology by licensing it from Iowa State University’s Research Foundation.


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