A focus on flavors in food is the emphasis of the new Flavor Research and Education Center at OSU
Share Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest What if commercially made whole-wheat bread tasted just as good as its refined-wheat counterpart? What if you could enjoy the guilty pleasure of eating a bag of potato chips with a third less sodium but all of the flavor?These are the types of questions being tackled by the Flavor Research and Education Center, newly arrived to The Ohio State University.“Dietary guidelines provide a basis to promote a healthy lifestyle, but they are not well followed. People tend to select foods they enjoy, they can afford, and that are convenient,” said Devin Peterson, director of the center and professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. Both the center and department are part of the university’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.The center focuses on research geared to find commercially viable ways of making mass-produced foods healthier and still meet the high standards of consumer acceptability.For example, some of its work centers on the acceptability of mass-marketed whole-grain foods.“We know that eating whole grains is healthy, but only 10% to 12% of the population eats the recommended amount,” Peterson said. “Someone could go to an artisan bakery and buy a loaf of whole-grain bread that’s likely to be more acceptable, but the general population doesn’t do that, and whole-grain foods are less liked overall.“We want to provide food solutions that have a population-wide impact. Flavor is a primary driver of food choice. So to increase the consumption of healthier foods, we need to make those foods taste good.”PhD graduate from the program and food entrepreneur Ian Ronningen on “flavornomics” being looked at through current research.“For the most part food undergoes a set of detrimental chemical changes as it ages. Understanding how these reactions relate to flavor can help improve product quality and maintain a desirable ‘fresh’ flavor. The challenge? There is an enormous amount of chemistry that happens during aging. In order to not miss any interesting chemistry, un-targeted approaches — flavoromics — can help us tackle these challenges.Applying some creative modeling and data management allows us to emphasize flavor active compounds. This is a critical aspect since not all chemical changes will relate to flavor differences,” Ronningen said. “Since we have multiple chemistries going on at the same time, we model our data using multiple approaches as well. By using more tools from our chemometric toolbox, we can uncover new and previously unfound flavor compounds to provide additional value. This research approach helps in understanding how we can take thousands of chemical features and distill them down into a more manageable number. Reducing what we look at can make finding the proverbial needle in the haystack easier, whether that be the key to fresher tasting food, finding novel flavor materials, or discovering new ways to mask off flavors or flavor modulators, chemometrics can help us address challenging questions.”As the fields of flavoromics and chemometrics develop, new and exciting challenges can be tackled with food.“Helping identify what aspects of raw ingredients relate to the best perceived quality can make sourcing more efficient. Optimization of manufacturing for cost, efficiency and product quality is not out of the question,” Ronningen said. “Rapid prototyping based on statistical modeling for sensory outcomes and ingredients. With time, energy and dedication the untargeted analysis toolbox can grow and become an integral part of growing a business and meeting consumer demands.”As a partnership between industry and academia, the center’s 16 member companies pay an annual membership fee. The funds support graduate students to conduct research that benefits the entire industry.“The industry has been chasing these holy grails — to reduce salt, reduce sugar and reduce fat — for a long time now, and new challenges include developing more ‘whole foods’ with simple labels and from sustainable ingredients,” Peterson said. “But there’s just not that much public funding available to help us understand the underlying aspects of food quality and food chemistry.”The center fills that gap, conducting basic research to provide fundamental knowledge to help companies broaden their understanding of ingredients to help meet the needs of the future.One example of the center’s findings is its investigation of compounds that form when whole grains are used in processed foods, Peterson said.“When we investigated the bitter compounds that your tongue responds to, we found they originated from the whole-wheat flour when water was added to make dough,” he said. “When water is added, enzymes in the flour generate these compounds, and they do that within about five minutes.”With this information, companies can choose flour made from wheat that doesn’t have as many of those enzymes — and, if it’s not available, encourage the breeding of new wheat lines to meet flavor standards.“Nature can do more of the heavy lifting for us, if we understand how,” Peterson said.Another line of study focuses on sodium, which is ubiquitous in processed foods because people like the flavor and it’s a cheap ingredient, Peterson said. But health authorities say Americans consume too much sodium, contributing to high blood pressure and related heart problems, and they encourage a goal of reducing sodium intake by 30% to 40%.In one study, the center conducted research on how much salt the tongue perceives.“What we found is that salt is not very well extracted in your mouth during consumption,” Peterson said. “If you have a potato chip that has salt on top of it, you’re probably only perceiving 15 to 20% of the salt that’s there.“If we can figure out how salt attaches to food and liberate more of it in the mouth during consumption, we can add a lot less salt to the food and it would taste just as salty. For example, if 10% of the salt is released now, if we find a way to increase that to 14%, we can reduce the salt in that food by 30% and you’d never notice the difference.”Peterson established the center at the University of Minnesota in 2011 and moved it to Ohio State in August 2016. Along with Peterson came two staff members and about a dozen postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. Peterson said Ohio State offered the energy, ambition and commitment to agricultural research to provide the foundation the center requires.For more information about the center, see frec.osu.edu.