This article was produced for Nestlé by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine's board of editors.
Can Scientists Create Healthier Foods?
Using chemistry and materials science, researchers are discovering ways to make lower-calorie foods at the molecular level without detracting from the flavor or texture
By Renee Morad, July 26, 2017
“Sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving,” wrote the Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman in his book The Story of Human Body. In it, he traces our relationship with sugar to a genetic mutation that permits our bodies to easily convert sugar into fat. That fat serves as an energy-dense reserve to guard against lean times — a hunter-gatherer’s insurance policy.
The trouble is humans are no longer hunter-gatherers. With sugar, fat and salt abundant and lifestyles becoming increasingly sedentary, rates of obesity and hypertension have been rising steadily since the 1970s. Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, and in a recent report, scientists with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) wrote that in some countries, including the United States and Mexico, obesity rates are approaching forty percent.
In response to this mounting crisis, scientists are using chemistry, and materials and sensory science to engineer away the need for excessive sugar, fat and salt. “Researchers are studying how we perceive sweetness and saltiness, and how we might modify either the composition or the structure of foods to deliver the best sweetness from the least amount of sugar,” says Gregory Ziegler, professor of food science at Penn State University.
At the Nestlé Research Center (NRC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, scientists are studying sugar—from its perceived sweetness when a single sugar molecule reaches our taste buds to its role in preserving foods, such as in jams, jellies and beef jerky. Last fall, Nestlé announced that it discovered a method to re-engineer sugar using only natural ingredients. The discovery could allow the company to use up to 40 percent less sugar in confectionery without any appreciable change in perceived sweetness.
“We have discovered a completely new way to use a traditional, natural ingredient,” says Reinhard Behringer, who leads the Institute of Materials Science at the NRC.
The spark for this work, says Behringer, is that Nestlé scientists determined that most people swallow up to 90 percent of a food’s sugar before ever tasting it. The challenge was to alter sugar’s structure so that it dissolves more quickly in water or saliva and reaches the taste buds more quickly.
“We really focused on how we could maximize the expression of sugar’s sweetness so less sugar, in total, is necessary,” Behringer says. “Our approach is very much inspired by nature—we are looking at how food found in nature is structured and trying to replicate that in our products and processes.”
With patents pending, the company cannot reveal its methodology, but Behringer says that new, low-sugar confectionery products could begin to arrive in 2018.
Behringer adds that the same principle—maximizing the expression of ingredients as a means to reduce overall use—might, in the future, apply to salt and fat. “Often times with food, we only sense a small fraction of, say, the salt in pizza or the sugar in chocolate, so we’re working to exploit the intrinsic qualities of raw ingredients to a maximum,” he says, adding that the research supports Nestlé’s mission to develop healthier and tastier products with sound science.
Though Nestlé is at the forefront of food science innovation, it is hardly alone. “We’re seeing more and more opportunities to use innovative technologies to make food with less sugar, fat and salt,” says Mabel Blades, a nutritionist and member of the Institute of Food Science & Technology. For example, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discovered that managing microstructural properties in processed meats and cheese—including the size and pressure of pores—could reduce the amount of salt needed for flavor and oil uptake during frying. Their work was published in 2014 in the Journal of Food Science. And at Penn State University, Ziegler says scientists are looking at the interactions between aroma and sweetness, specifically whether a particular aromatic compound can interact with food to give the impression of enhanced sweetness. “It’s about even more than how taste and olfaction works,” Ziegler says. “It’s also about psychology and how people perceive things.”
Working with, not against, our evolution can be slow, but Behringer says, “Step by step, we’re making our products more nutritious without compromising on taste. In the long-term, our goal is really to help adjust tastes so people crave less sugar, salt and fat in their diets”