Newsletter: June 11, 2019

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.

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Sensor monitors shelf life of milk
Consumers are sometimes confused about whether or not to discard milk that is past its expiration date but still smells fresh. Now, thanks to a sensor developed by researchers from Washington State University’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) and the WSU/University of Idaho School of Food Science, expiration dates may become obsolete.

The researchers were interested in exploring ways to promote food safety with refrigerated foods, which can experience temperature abuse during handling, transportation, and storage, thus compromising safety and quality, and affecting shelf life. “We thought about developing low-cost sensors that can be incorporated in the primary packaging, which are able to directly interact with the food environment and sense food quality,” says Shyam Sablani, professor in BSE. A low-cost sensor could provide valuable information about the product’s shelf-life and potentially minimize economic losses.

Sablani and his team decided to work with fluid milk, which is widely consumed and must be stored at refrigerated temperatures. When it spoils, milk produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which the research team identified and quantified under refrigerated and temperature abuse conditions (4° to 19°C).

Next, the team selected a reagent that interacts with the VOCs and changes color. Nanoparticles were coated with the reagent to create the nanosensor. “The nanoparticles provided a large surface area; hence, a very small amount was sufficient to carry the reagent needed to react with VOCs,” explains Sablani. “During storage, the VOCs generated by microbes in the milk interact with the nanosensor to produce a color change from pink to purple.”

Sablani says the researchers “are planning to work with food and packaging companies to commercialize the sensor.” The next state of their research includes fine-tuning the chemistry of the nanosensor “to improve its color change sensitivity and figure out creative ways to incorporate the sensor in package closures.”  


Study validates soy protein’s heart-healthy status
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering removing soy protein from its list of heart-healthy foods. A recent study suggests that soy protein should retain its heart-healthy status.

Authorized health claims on food products indicate that a food or food component may reduce the risk of a disease or a health-related condition. The FDA authorizes such claims when they are supported by scientific evidence and significant scientific agreement among qualified experts. In October 2017, the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition issued a statement proposing the revocation of the heart disease claim for soy protein. The proposed revocation is based on inconsistent findings on the relationship between soy protein and heart disease since the authorization was issued in 1999.

Researchers from various organizations collaborated to conduct a meta-analysis of 46 studies investigating the relationship between soy protein and cholesterol. “Soy is a valuable protein source with a long history of consumption in the East,” says David Jenkins, a professor of medicine and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and one of the study’s authors. The studies are the controlled clinical trials on which the FDA is planning to base its decision. According to Jenkins, the FDA is reviewing the status of soy protein because of a 2009 ruling that more specifically defined what food products could bear authorized health claims. “Although higher standards may be appropriate for drugs, they should not be used for foods,” Jenkins asserts. He and his co-authors concluded that 43 of the 46 trials provided evidence that soy protein reduced LDL cholesterol by 3%–4%. According to Jenkins, this is statistically significant and relevant as people are being encouraged to consume diets that are more plant-based.

“You may take one drug for a disease and expect it alone [to] be effective treatment. Diet is a mixture of foods … that all may have small effects and together have the potential of a drug-like effect,” Jenkins explains. “When soy was taken in combination with nuts, plant sterols, and sticky fibers from oats and barley—all of which have FDA [approval] for heart health claims, … [t]he combined LDL reduction was similar to that observed after a statin drug… was taken. Therefore, it is not appropriate to class foods simply as drugs but to appreciate the importance of even small food effects. Soy therefore continues to fulfill this role.”  


Sugary beverages feed tumor growth in mice, study shows
Even modest consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has the potential to accelerate tumor growth, according to a mouse model study conducted by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine. In the study, published recently in Science, mice that consumed a modest amount of high-fructose corn syrup daily—equivalent to human consumption of about 12 ounces of a sugar-sweetened beverage (the amount in one can of soda)—promoted tumor growth in mice, independent of obesity.

The results were surprising, says co-corresponding author Jihye Yun, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor. “We were surprised to see that this moderate amount of sugary drink could enhance tumor growth,” says Yun. “We chose this moderate amount of sugary drink to prevent mice from becoming obese.” The researchers were interested in zeroing in on the effect of sugar without the existence of obesity because current thinking is that sugar has a harmful effect on health mainly because it can lead to obesity. “However,” says Yun, “we were uncertain whether a direct and causal link existed between sugar consumption and cancer.”

To help determine the answer, the researchers generated a mouse model of early-stage colon cancer by deleting the APC gene, which serves as a gatekeeper in colorectal cancer. When the gene is deleted, normal intestinal cells don’t stop growing or die, forming early-stage tumors called polyps. The researchers then fed the mice a moderate amount of sugary water orally once a day. The mice did not become obese, but after two months, they did develop larger and higher-grade tumors than mice that consumed regular water.

“These results suggest that when the animals have early-stage tumors in the intestines—which can occur in many young adult humans by chance and without notice—consuming even modest amounts of high-fructose corn syrup in liquid form can boost tumor growth and progression, independently of obesity,” says Yun, who adds that additional research is needed to see if the results translate to human health.

Still, she notes that the study suggests that there’s reason for caution when it comes to consuming sugar-sweetened beverages. “We need to be careful about all kinds of sugary drinks, including the concentrated fruit juices and nutrient drinks that have tons of sugar,” Yun recommends.

Yun says the researchers are interested in exploring other mechanisms or effects that sugary drinks can have on tumor development, including tumor initiation. “For example,” she says, “we are investigating how sugary drinks affect the gut microbiome and how [an] altered microbiome can affect tumor development.” 

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