A Publication of WTVP

Research that contributes to better health and wellness may revolve around what comes out…or it may revolve around what goes in.

The problem of childhood obesity in the United States has grown disproportionally: the latest study points out that 32 percent of children in America are either obese or overweight. The causes of obesity are complex and multifaceted, including genetic, biological, behavioral and cultural factors, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. But obesity typically occurs only when a person consumes more calories than he/she expends. Therefore, a large calorie surplus is usually the cause of obesity.

Taking calories out of a typical child’s diet is no easy task; kids crave sugary and fatty foods and drinks, and there are many high-calorie temptations lurking in TV commercials and on display in local stores. In many homes, moms and dads are too busy and too tired from work to prepare low-calorie, healthy foods. Some parents, indulging themselves in fatty and high-calorie processed and fast foods, are unable to be role models of healthy eating.

Food manufacturers have taken notice of the growing anxiety of parents about the obesity of their children and its health implications and are now offering up a number of low-calorie or zero-calorie fat replacements in their food formulations. One such product, called Z-Trim, was invented at the USDA-ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR).

Z-Trim is made by processing corn bran so that, when mixed with water, it forms a zero-calorie gel that mimics real fat in appearance, mouth feel and texture. It can be used in the manufacturing process to cut fat and calories by up to half in a diverse array of food products, including cream cheese, salad dressing, cookies, crackers, mayonnaise, hamburgers and omelets. Z-Trim is gaining increased use through the federal school lunch program. School districts from New York to California are using the product to improve textures and nutritional profiles in baked items such as bread, pizza, muffins, cupcakes, cookies, cakes, and in icings and fillings.

NCAUR researchers are also employing cutting-edge technologies and world-class scientific lab instruments to develop, test and validate new food ingredients and processing technologies that add health benefits beyond basic nutrition. These enhanced foods are known as “functional foods.”

For example, NCAUR researchers have focused their attention on a group of dietary complex carbohydrates called “prebiotics,” non-digestible and zero-calorie food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the digestive system and benefit the health of the human body. Discovering a new process that allows cereal grain hulls and other byproducts of grain milling to be a viable new source, these scientists produced different varieties of fully-functional prebiotics. These new varieties open the door for prebiotics that can be readily included in various food ingredients as an alternative to prebiotic supplements.

These examples and other research projects at NCAUR will continue to generate tools for increased access to safe, nutritious and balanced meals, and for better health and wellness for the world and its children. iBi

Sean X. Liu is a physical scientist/research leader in the Functional Foods Research Unit at the USDA ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria.