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 the flavor?
These are the types of questions being tackled by the Flavor Research & Education Center that is 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, that they can afford and that are convenient," said Devin Peterson, director of the flavor center and professor in the Ohio State department of food science and technology. Both the center and department are part of the university's College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.
The center will focus on research geared toward finding commercially viable ways of making mass-produced foods healthier while still meeting the high standards for 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 10-12% 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."
Peterson said the center hopes 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," he said.
"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, but there's just not that much public funding available to help us understand the underlying aspects of food quality and food chemistry," Peterson said.
The flavor research 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.
As a partnership between industry and academia, the center's 16 member companies pay an annual membership fee. The funds support graduate students who conduct research that benefits the entire industry.
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 that 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."
Armed with this information, companies can choose flour made from wheat that doesn't have as many of those enzymes — or, 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.
However, 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 30-40%.
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 15-20% of the salt that's there."
If the center can figure out how salt attaches to food and liberate more of it in the mouth during consumption, Peterson said a lot less salt will need to be added to the food, yet 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 said.
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 that provide the foundation the center requires.
The center's research platform consists of three core areas of discovery: identification of flavor stimuli, pathway mapping (generation/degradation) and mechanisms of delivery. The center believes its holistic approach provides a wide lens of discovery that facilitates translatable outcomes, while the multifaceted approach across all three research areas provides the knowledge necessary to understand and influence food flavor.
Identifying compounds that contribute to flavor perception specifies the molecular targets necessary to understand pathways of formation or modes of instability. This information, in turn, offers insight into potential control points for flavor optimization and allows for better utilization of natural ingredients.
Flavor delivery is a key component of perception, according to the center, because flavor compounds need to be released from the food matrix in order to be perceived. Identifying the interactions that govern flavor release provides further opportunities for optimization.