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, 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 flavor 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 & 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.
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.
“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 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. 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, 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,” he explained.
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.