Featured Research

Raising the Bar: NCSU’s Protein-Polyphenol Mix Creates Soft, Shelf-stable, Protein-packed Functional Foods

May 18, 2016

NASA plans to have humans on Mars by 2036, which means they need to figure out how to feed astronauts and keep them healthy for the three-year round-trip without weighing down the spacecraft. Mary Ann Lila, PhD, director of the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) at the NC Research Campus, has a solution.

Lila, along with her research team of Allen Foegeding, PhD, Debora Esposito, PhD, and Margaret Schneider, PhD,  recently published the results of a NASA-funded study in the journal Food and Function that illustrates a new technology for the creation of a protein-packed, polyphenol-filled, shelf-stable functional food that can withstand the rigors of space travel while maintaining its flavor and nutritional profile.

Overcoming Bar Hardening

Prompted by NASA’s preference for protein bars with at least 20 grams of protein, the team brainstormed ways to maintain shelf-life of light-weight, high-protein bars without sacrificing the palatability, texture or health benefits.


Mary Ann Lila

“This study is about finding a balance between fusing the active compounds in fruit with edible protein and making sure they are still shelf-stable, light-weight and good-tasting,” Lila said.

The challenge is that foods with at least 20 grams of protein become dense, and the active proteins cause the foods to harden. Lila’s approach of complexing proteins with plant polyphenols changes their molecular structure, as proteins and polyphenols bind to each other in these functional foods. This process causes proteins to become non-active, preventing what Lila calls the “bar-hardening phenomenon.”

The biological activity of both the plant polyphenols and the protein complexes are active upon ingestion. The functional foods in the study were made with cranberries, muscadine grapes, and blackcurrant. The technology is adaptable to any fruit to provide a variety of flavors and nutritional benefits.

“There is extreme potential that lies in using plant polyphenols to modify proteins and, in turn, food structures,” said Schneider. “We are opening up a new level of exploration of the use of protein-polyphenol ingredients in a real food system.”


Margaret Schneider

The researchers incorporated protein and polyphenols to create a  foam structure, which provides the light, airy texture of foods  such as bread, whipped cream, and merengue. Foams are a mixture of air and liquid stabilized by compounds, like proteins, that provide food a natural elasticity that degrades over time. Protein ingredients can be incorporated in a foam to assess their behavior in a food structure. When the researchers found positive results of shelf-stability and light-weight qualities when foams were made with protein-polyphenol ingredients, they were able to then introduce this combination of ingredients into protein bar production.

The next step for this research will be to make the production of highly functional foods more economically feasible.

“Our current studies done in the lab are not necessarily cost-effective on a production scale,” Lila said.

The preliminary data from this paper and from two upcoming papers will provide the basis for additional funding to help streamline the production process for companies interested in applying the team’s technology to the production of protein-enriched products.

Lila expects the trifecta of protein, phytochemicals, and shelf-stability to be extremely attractive to companies interested in making protein-dense products. She anticipates that in the near future, campers to commuters will find protein bars made with her technology on grocery store shelves.


By: Kara Marker, NCRC Marketing


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