Astronauts, protein bars and the development of natural ingredients may not seem to have a connection. In the laboratory of Mary Ann Lila, PhD, director of the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) at the NC Research Campus, they are all part of one project.
Lila and her research team completed a NASA-funded study that used cranberries, muscadine grapes, and blackcurrant to create a protein-packed, polyphenol-filled, shelf-stable functional food for NASA that can withstand the rigors of space travel while maintaining its flavor and nutritional profile. The study results were published earlier this year in the journal Food and Function.
Raising the Bar
Prompted by NASA’s preference for bars with at least 20 grams of protein, her team found that a complex of plant polyphenols and proteins led to light-weight, high-protein bars with an extended shelf-life that did not lose palatability, texture or health benefits.
“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.
High levels of active proteins tend to make bars dense and hard. Lila found when she complexed proteins with plant polyphenols the proteins became non-active, preventing what she calls the “bar-hardening phenomenon.” The biological activity of the plant polyphenols and the protein complexes are re-activated upon ingestion.
The researchers incorporated the protein and polyphenol mix as part of a foam structure, which is a mixture of air and liquid stabilized by compounds like proteins. The researchers found that the protein-polyphenol ingredient as a foam provided the shelf-stability and light-weight qualities essential to the production of such a high-protein bar.
The technology is adaptable to many fruits and vegetables, providing a variety of flavors, nutritional benefits and applications. For the US Army, Lila and her team produced nutrient-enhanced food ingredients using kale and muscadine grapes for drinks, power bars, cookies and other healthy snacks for soldiers. They are using a related, patented technology in an ongoing grant with an NC A&T State University laboratory at the NC Research Campus to develop hypoallergenic peanut flour for the food industry to decrease the incidence of complications from peanut allergenicity.
“We have really promising technologies with a lot of marketable uses,” Lila said. “We are looking for industry partners to help us move the research forward.”
For more information about this technology, contact NC Research Campus Business Development Director Chris Ervin.