Oil be damned - science puts smart food on the menu
Researchers are cooking up a range of foods aimed at reducing diet-related and non-communicable diseases
Imagine double-cream yoghurt with half the fat, gluten-free pasta with antioxidant properties, or creamy mayonnaise with only one-fifth of the fat content.
Food scientists at the Centre of Excellence in Food Security are busy turning this into reality. And they’re doing it in a lab, using plants indigenous to Africa, and without losing any of the original taste – they promise.
The Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) was launched on April 15 2014 to undertake innovative research to enable South Africa to tackle the challenge of food security and nutrition, according to its website.They are called SMART foods because they are safe, marketable, affordable, ready to eat and trendsetting, according to Professor Naushad Emmambux, principal investigator of the innovation programme at the centre. Together with his team of researchers, Emmambux is creating a range of smart foods aimed at reducing diet-related and non-communicable diseases.
Low-GI pap and nutrient-rich snacks made from sweet potato and moringa leaves – lauded as an excellent source of nutrition and natural energy booster – are just some of the other prototypes on the menu, which includes cowpea (a legume) pasta and low-fat mayonnaise made from a grain originating in Ethiopia.Emmambux said the aim was to shift the culture from high-energy dense foods to high-nutrient dense foods.
“We want to reduce fat content of food without affecting the sensory properties of food,” he said. “For example, we want to remove fat and add some other material that will have the same fat properties, but it’s not fat.”
Emmambux and his team were able to modify starch and add it to mayonnaise to reduce the fat content by 80%. Other modifications of starch, by increasing the slowly digestible starch or decreasing the resistant starch, made it low-GI.
“We also managed to make pap with slightly lower GI by just adding a little bit of fatty acids. These are two [places] where we are reducing the energy density of food and increasing the nutrition content,” said Emmumbux.
According to another researcher on the team, Professor Gyebi Duodu, these foods have an ability to combat diet-related and other non-communicable diseases, ranging from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to cancer.“The reason we are able to do this is because these indigenous crops are very good sources of compounds where we gather lots of information about the ability of these components to promote health,” he said.
“Those components are classified as bioactive components and one of the properties is that they are very powerful antioxidants.”
To ensure the food tasted as good as the fat-filled originals they were copied from, sensory evaluations were conducted where people tasted the prototypes and provided feedback.
Changes were then made in the lab to ensure the closest thing to a match.
The CoE said production needed to be stepped up and market surveys done to gauge consumers’ preferences. “Then it’s up to the market and product developers to get these food inspirations onto consumers’ plates.”
The centre – hosted by the University of the Western Cape and co-hosted by the University of Pretoria – is a virtual organisation that brings together the expertise of numerous South African and international institutions and more than 100 researchers across various disciplines.