Low-sugar fruit developed
For people watching their sugar intake, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has developed a low-sugar version of a popular fruit.

Scientists there have bred two varieties of watermelon that contain the nutrients of many conventional varieties but have more than 50% less sugar.

Angela Davis, a plant geneticist in Lane, Okla., and the chief breeder of the varieties, decided to develop a low-sugar watermelon after learning that the sugary fruit was off limits for many consumers, including diabetics.

She said that she was not sure that a low-sugar watermelon could be developed, given the tendency of richly pigmented watermelons to contain higher levels of sugar. But she screened hundreds of watermelons and discovered one with golden flesh and low amounts of sugar. This variety is the one that provides the genetic foundation for the current lines, which are red.

Davis has shared the new watermelon stock with interested growers. The debut of the new varieties depends on farmers’ receptiveness.

She has also developed a melon that has a little more sugar than the low-sugar varieties and a little less sugar than commercially available watermelons.

ConAgra acquires Alexia Foods
ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., recently announced that it has acquired New York–based Alexia Foods Inc., a privately held natural food company.

The Alexia brand generates approximately $35 million in annual sales of products that are available at natural, gourmet, club, and grocery stores. According to ConAgra, Alexia Foods will continues to operate from its existing Long Island City, N.Y., offices under the leadership of Alex Dzieduszycki, Alexia’s founder.

Taste receptor detects off-flavors
Researchers from the Nestlé Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland, have discovered a molecular basis for the off-taste of artificial sweeteners.

In the June online edition of the American Journal of Physiology, they discuss that a specific receptor in humans, TRPV1, which is involved in the perception of heat, pain, and noxious stimuli, also detects artificial sweetener off-tastes.

The receptors can be found in taste receptor cells and in nerve endings in the mouth and are activated by a wide range of structurally different molecules. The researchers found that saccharin exhibits a strong ability to activate the TRPV1 receptor. "It seems that at high concentrations, artificial sweeteners activate all bells and whistles in the chemosensory detection pathways of the oral cavity," said Johannes le Coutre, lead researcher.

The researchers also tested the ability of divalent metal cations, which impart metallic off-tastes, to activate TRPV1 and found that the divalent metal cations copper, zinc, and iron do stimulate TRPV1 receptors. Thus, they concluded that the combined findings indicate that chemosensory coding, i.e., the distinct transmission of specific stimuli into the brain, is more complex than originally thought.

This study was conducted in collaboration with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Initiative taps scientists’ expertise
General Mills, Minneapolis, Minn., recently began a collaboration to develop a food science division within YourEncore™, Indianapolis, Ind., a company that helps organizations by leveraging the expertise of retired scientists and engineers. The development of the division is an expansion of the ongoing partnership between the two companies.

The new division will recruit additional scientists and engineers who have a professional or academic background in food science or related fields. They will help companies in the areas of product commercialization, product development, and technical problem solving. General Mills will provide senior technical leadership support and industry insight to help YourEncore in its initiative.

The creation of the division is an outgrowth of General Mills’ Worldwide Innovation Network, which seeks external partners to complement and expand the company’s innovation efforts.

YourEncore took a similar approach in developing its life science division to serve clients in the pharmaceutical and medical fields.

FDA streamlines regulations
The Food and Drug Administration has launched a national program in the United States to establish more uniform, equivalent, and high-quality regulatory programs by state agencies responsible for regulating facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food under FDA’s jurisdiction.

Currently, programmatic activities can vary from state to state, and these variations can lead to inconsistencies in the oversight of food safety. According to FDA, adoption of voluntary standards for state regulatory programs will establish a uniform basis for measuring and improving the performance of state programs for regulating manufactured food and help the state and federal authorities reduce foodborne illness hazards in food facilities.

The Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards, which took federal and state regulators five years to develop, define best practices for the critical elements of state regulatory programs designed to protect the public from foodborne illness and injury. Some of these include staff training; inspection; quality assurance; food defense preparedness and response; foodborne illness and incident investigation; enforcement; education and outreach; resource management; laboratory resources; and program assessment.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget has approved the program, which will be pilot-tested in New York, Oregon, and Missouri before September 30, 2007.

Genetic defect, obesity linked
Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pa., recently identified a genetically transmitted metabolic defect that involves decreased production of liver enzymes needed to burn fat, and it may help to explain why some people become obese while others remain thin.

The study, published in the August issue of Metabolism, explains that genetic susceptibility to diet-induced obesity is due to a reduced capacity to burn fat.

The body’s cells burn fat to provide energy, a process known as fat oxidation, which takes place in the mitochondria. If something impairs this process, the body’s capacity to make energy is reduced. This can lead to increased hunger and overeating. The researchers said that if fat oxidation is impaired and the diet is high in fat, a greater proportion of calories cannot be used and food intake increases to cover the energy deficit. The increased food intake causes weight gain because fat fuels are stored in fat tissue when they are not oxidized.

To determine whether preexisting differences in fat oxidation might contribute to individual susceptibility to diet-induced obesity, Mark Friedman, the senior author of the study, and Hong Ji, the lead author, used rats that differed in their genetic predisposition to gain weight and become obese when fed a high-fat diet.

The researchers found that even when eating a low-fat diet and still lean, the obesity-prone rats were less able to burn fat than were the obesity-resistant rats. This intrinsic deficit in fat oxidation was associated with a decrease in the capacity to make two liver enzymes. One, CD36, is responsible for transferring fat fuels into liver cells, while the second enzyme, acyl-coenzyme A dehydrogenase, begins the oxidation process in mitochondria.

According to the researchers, the obesity-prone rats overate and became obese when fed a high-fat diet, gaining 36% more weight than resistant rats. Fat oxidation was further compromised due to a decreased ability to make CPT1A, the liver enzyme responsible for transporting fat into mitochondria.

Friedman’s other research has showed that a decrease in fat oxidation and energy production in the liver generates a signal that stimulates eating.

Breaking new ground
Food companies continue to expand their facilities to increase their manufacturing output and provide better service to their customers.

Bio Springer, a subsidiary of Lesaffre Group, Maisons-Alfort, France, announced plans to build a yeast extracts plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The plant will use the latest technology developments from Bio Springer. Red Star Yeast Corp., which has a yeast factory located at the same location as the proposed Bio Springer facility, will supply the yeast.

Danisco USA Inc., New Century, Kan., broke ground on its new 19,200-sq-ft facility expansion at its plant in Madison, Wis. The larger plant will house an ultra-cold storage facility and packaging operations for frozen dairy cultures. The company said that the larger facility will allow it to produce more cultures to meet the demands of the dairy industry for starter cultures and probiotics.

by Karen Nachay,
Assistant Editor
[email protected]