Will diet foods ever become the norm? (Day 47)

Chocolate BubblesTake a walk down any supermarket shopping aisle and you’ll find carefully arranged products positioned by ‘merchandisers’ to ensure your favourite foods are easy to find and always on sale.

‘Diet’, ‘healthy’ or ‘reduced calorie’ foods are often given their own special sections, and in many cases the amount of space given to them is growing.

But for many consumers ‘diet’ products are a compromise – they don’t quite taste the same…do they? But if they did, it could make the battle against obesity much easier.

Last week I posted a blog about the upcoming ‘sugar war’, triggered by this obesity epidemic.

More than 1.4 billion adults are overweight, health services are under strain to cope with obesity related illness e.g. 347 million people have diabetes, with 44 per cent of this burden directly attribute to obesity and over-eating.

The stigma attached to diet foods is that they are unappealing. However, research is being done to improve the taste of low-fat cheeses and cakes; and others are considering how to bulk up low-fat hot dogs to improve their texture.

One of the answers to all of this could be the simple (or not so simple) bubble.

Throughout history bubbles have been synonymous with luxury; think champagne, chocolate, ice cream and meringues!

But they are also of immense value to ‘diet’ foods – and I have found a good example of chemical engineers working to use bubbles to offer truly ‘lighter’ foods in terms of calories.

Professor Keshavan Niranjan

Professor Keshavan Niranjan

Professor Keshavan Niranjan (known as Niranjan), from the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Reading, works to find novel methods to put more bubbles into food, whilst retaining the same luxurious mouth-feel.

Bubbles offer novelty and luxury; without the calories. Air can be considered a zero calorie ingredient that offers producers a chance to create novel products in the food market.

Aerated food can be used to improve the perceptions of taste including; sweetness, creaminess, bitterness and dryness.

There are a variety of methods of adding bubbles to foods for example; mechanical agitation (whipping), steam induced incorporation (frothing), chemical raising agents and aerosols.

But adding bubbles to food and keeping them there is the challenge.

Bubbles have to be dispersed evenly throughout products and remain stable. This is an issue as bubble density is three orders of magnitude smaller then the food they are inserted in, making the dispersion inherently unstable.

Niranjan works, amongst other things, to stabilise bubble structures in food and to find ways of creating the right texture of the food. He does this by using interfacial science (the interface interactions of particles) to hold bubbles within the food.

His work will enable products to be made that remain bubbly for longer shelf-lives.

Niranjan says that there are “very critical knowledge gaps, particularly in rheology (the flow of matter) and interfacial sciences” which he hopes to address in the future through collaborations with Dr Ian Wilson in Cambridge, a rheology specialist.

“Ian has considerable expertise in rheology of bubbly fluids, and the framework for a strong collaborative link between groups at Cambridge and Reading has been set up, not only to improve processing and process efficiency, but also understand the links between ingredient composition and processing conditions on the one hand, and product structure, texture, oral processing and satiety – on the other!”

It is good to see chemical engineers working to create new methods to produce foods that will improve not only wellbeing, but our health.

I’m sure the day will come when chemical engineers can make diet and non-diet foods indistinguishable. When these foods become the norm, they’ll make a major contribution to tackling obesity.