Low-fat cheeses and cakes that are just as tempting as full-fat equivalents could be heading for supermarket shelves, thanks to fresh insights into how proteins can replace fats without affecting foodstuffs' taste and texture.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team at Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh has produced modified proteins that easily break down into micro-particles and therefore closely mimic the behaviour of fats during food manufacture. The proteins will enable food manufacturers to remove much of the fat used in their products without compromising on product quality.
Protein-for-fat substitution is not a completely new idea, but to date it has been restricted to products such as yogurts. In cheeses and cakes it has proved less successful in ensuring the authentic taste and texture vital to consumer satisfaction, mainly because proteins could not mimic the behaviour of fats closely enough.
By studying the proteins' chemical structure, the team has developed a detailed understanding of how they behave when they are heated or undergo other food manufacturing processes. This has provided the basis for modifying proteins so that they can be used as effective fat substitutes. The proteins could encourage development of a wider choice of low-fat foods, helping consumers to eat more healthily and reducing obesity in the UK and elsewhere.*
The team has achieved particularly promising results in using proteins to replace eggs, an ingredient commonly used as a gelling agent in bakery items. Such substitution not only cuts fat content; because eggs can be subject to significant price volatility, it could also cut the cost of products and so encourage consumers to eat more healthily.
The research will now be taken forward by project partner Nandi Proteins, who will use the findings to extend their range of proteins with a view to food manufacturers incorporating them in new low-fat products that could start reaching the shops within two years.
As part of a Technology Strategy Board-supported Knowledge Transfer Partnership, the research team is now also developing a computer model to help food manufacturers pinpoint the optimum level of protein-for-fat replacement for particular products.
Dr Steve Euston of Heriot-Watt University, who has led the project, says: "We've paved the way for the development of modified proteins that, by closely mimicking fat, can be used to produce a wider range of appealing low-fat foods. The result could be important health benefits, as well as a reduction in the burden on the NHS caused by obesity and other weight-related health problems."
Lydia Campbell, Chief Technology Officer for Nandi Proteins, says: "EPSRC funding allowed the scientific investigation of the underlying science of Nandi technology, and the outcomes will add significantly to the confidence with which the technology can be deployed across the UK and internationally. The outcomes of this research will also serve to broaden the innovation of our product range, and to compete with international companies."
For media enquiries contact:
Dr Steve Euston, School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Tel: 0131 451 3640, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The effect of heating on the structure of proteins is illustrated in figures 1a and 1b, where the milk whey protein beta-lactoglobulin has been simulated unfolding at high temperature.
Figure 1a shows the native, unheated protein
Figure 1b shows the heated unfolded molecule
The molecule undergoes loss of structure as it denatures accompanied by changes in the distribution of water molecules in the hydration shell around the molecule. It is these changes in the way in which the protein interacts with water in solution that leads to changes in the functional properties of the protein, and in particular their ability to thicken or form gels in food systems.
Image 3: Chocolate cake
Notes for Editors:
The 3-year project 'Foaming and Fat Replacer Ingredients' began in 2012 and is receiving just over £232,000 in EPSRC funding.
Another strand of this EPSRC-funded project has seen the team identify a by-product from the production of Quorn, the meat substitute, as the potential basis for a fat-replacer protein. This could help the manufacturers of Quorn (Marlow Foods, another partner in the project) to tackle a significant waste disposal issue.
* 67per cent of men and 57 per cent of women in the UK are classified as overweight or obese; Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, published in The Lancet on 29th May 2014, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60460-8/abstract
Official government figures show that the cost to the NHS resulting from health problems associated with obesity and being overweight is currently more than £5 billion per year; https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-obesity-and-improving-diet
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. http://www.epsrc.ac.uk
The Technology Strategy Board is the UK's innovation agency. Its goal is to accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation. Sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Technology Strategy Board brings together business, research and the public sector, supporting and accelerating the development of innovative products and services to meet market needs, tackle major societal challenges and help build the future economy. For more information please visit http://www.innovateuk.org.
About Heriot-Watt University
Heriot-Watt University specialises in science, technology, engineering, business and design, with a particular focus on developing solutions to critical global issues, such as climate change and energy.
Established in 1821, the university has campuses in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, Orkney and Dubai, and is investing in a new campus in Malaysia.
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