Newsletter: June 12, 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.

Keto Diet Gut microbes with anti-seizure effects may give rise to a new medical food
Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have identified specific gut bacteria that are responsible for the anti-seizure effects of a ketogenic diet. The discovery, detailed in a study published in Cell, has the potential to further knowledge about and treatment of conditions such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety, and schizophrenia. 

Inspired by recent discoveries that support the interactions between the gut microbiome and the nervous system, the UCLA researchers set out to explore the potential role of the gut microbiome in improving treatment of neurological disorders. Elaine Hsiao, senior author of the study, explains, “We decided to study the microbiome in the context of the ketogenic diet and refractory epilepsy because the ketogenic diet is a rare example of a diet-based clinical therapy for disease that is well known to be efficacious but very difficult for clinicians to implement and for individuals to tolerate and maintain. The promise of being able to quickly improve patient lives in a meaningful way was the main driving force for this work.” 

Using two preclinical mouse models, the researchers showed that the ketogenic diet increases the abundance of certain gut bacteria that are necessary and sufficient to confer seizure protection. The bacteria work together to regulate circulating metabolites that fuel neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is responsible for counterbalancing the excitation of neurons by glutamate.  

The researchers subsequently developed a technology that mimics the seizure protection abilities of the ketogenic diet, and the UCLA Technology Development Group has granted an exclusive license for it to Bloom Science, co-founded by Hsiao; Chris Reyes, the company’s chief scientific officer; and Tony Colasin, CEO. The company is developing proprietary products, including neuroprotective medical foods, based on the gut microbes, to address the needs of people with epilepsy not managed by therapeutics.   

“We are very focused on bringing solutions to the market that we hope will positively impact the lives of people with epilepsy,” says Reyes. “Our medical food, which we plan to launch in the next 24–36 months, will be our first product to address this need.” 

The growing understanding of the role the human microbiome plays in brain health, combined with innovations in nutrition and food science, opens up a new world of possibilities for addressing a broad range of neurological conditions beyond epilepsy, believes Colasin. “We are excited and humbled by the possibility of creating solutions for the global healthcare challenge of neurological diseases, many of which have been intractable to therapeutic development thus far,” he says.   

“There is a long history of research around the gut-brain axis and Elaine’s work further strengthens that connection,” adds Reyes. “This research highlights the critical role of the microbiome in facilitating the health benefits of a dietary intervention and opens the door to exploring how the microbiome shapes our response to diet and, in particular, to diet in the treatment of medical conditions.”


Nano Particles

Putting nanoparticles under the microscope
While nanotechnology can provide value to the food industry, there are concerns over the safety and toxicity of ingesting certain types of nanoparticles. Researchers examining the topic wrote in the journal npj Science of Food that the safety of nanoparticles used in food applications should be examined on a case-by-case basis depending on the nature of the nanoparticles and the properties of the food matrix in which they are dispersed. 

Nanoparticles in food are either organic (composed of lipids, proteins, and/or carbohydrates) or inorganic (engineered with silver, iron oxide, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or silicon dioxide). “Organic and inorganic nanoparticles are being increasingly used in the food industry for a variety of reasons,” says David Julian McClements, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lead author of the study. “They can enhance the bioavailability of nutrients, increase the efficacy of antimicrobials, and improve the efficiency of fertilizers and pesticides. They are also used to alter the appearance, stability, and texture of foods.  

“When the size of the particles is reduced into the nanoscale, they may behave differently than larger particles in the human body, which could have some implications for toxicity.” One concern is that the nanoparticles may be able to enter cells and organs potentially causing damage. “For instance, they may be able to cross the gastrointestinal tract more easily and to interfere with biochemical processes,” says McClements. “Consequently, it is important to test them.” 

McClements stresses the importance of considering the potential risks of nanotechnology in order to take advantage of the benefits of the technology. He adds that the next steps to advance the science need to involve developing standardized methods to test the toxicity of nanoparticles. “More research on the gastrointestinal fate and potential toxicity of food nanoparticles is required using realistic conditions that take into account the complexity of the food matrix and human gut.” 


Baking Soda

Baking soda could help fight autoimmune disease
Baking soda has long been a popular home remedy for everything from teeth whitening to treating heartburn. Now researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University have found that a daily dose of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) dissolved in water may help reduce the damaging inflammation associated with autoimmune diseases. The research findings were reported last month in The Journal of Immunology. 

Studies with lab rats and humans suggest that it works by stimulating anti-inflammatory pathways in the spleen. The researchers found that giving rats water with baking soda for two weeks caused the population of immune cells in the spleen, which are called macrophages, to shift primarily from those that promote inflammation (M1) to others that reduce it (M2).  

“The exciting thing about this research is that our data indicate oral ingestion of sodium bicarbonate activates the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway,” says Paul O’Connor, a renal physiologist in the Medical College of Georgia Department of Physiology and the study’s corresponding author. “This pathway was first identified approximately 20 years ago and has been the subject of much research. The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway or reflex is an innate physiological pathway that has been shown to shift our immune system from an inflammatory state to an anti-inflammatory state. 

“Given [that] this is an innate anti-inflammatory pathway, naturally present in all of us, dysfunction in this system in some people may actually be the cause of some inflammatory diseases,” he continues. 

Initially, the researchers studied rats with kidney disease. “We started thinking, ‘how does baking soda slow progression of kidney disease?’” O’Connor says. They then began experimenting with rats without kidney damage and saw the same macrophage responses. At that point, they teamed with researchers at the medical college’s Georgia Prevention Institute to conduct a trial with human subjects.  

The subjects fasted overnight and drank either 2 g of sodium bicarbonate dissolved in water or an equal amount of sodium chloride. “We found that M1 or ‘inflammatory macrophages’ decreased while M2 or ‘regulatory macrophages’ increased in the blood of these subjects after ingesting the solution of sodium bicarbonate, while no significant changes occurred in the group drinking sodium chloride in solution,” O’Connor says. “These results were analogous to changes we had observed in experimental animals which drank sodium bicarbonate or sodium chloride solution over days and weeks.” 

Using baking soda to trigger an anti-inflammatory response is “potentially a really safe way to treat inflammatory disease,” O’Connor observes. Of course, it is premature to recommend it as a therapy for human autoimmune disorders. O’Connor cautions that there are serious health concerns associated with consuming too much baking soda; the amount that may safely be consumed depends on individual health status. “Our study  was a basic science study looking at physiological pathways, and we did not investigate dose response or the safety of long-term use,” he emphasizes. … “Much more work needs to be done before we can determine the effectiveness or safety of this approach for the treatment of disease.”