North Carolina State University has gained support from the U.S. Army to create functional food ingredients from fruits and vegetables that will be used to develop healthier, more portable combat rations for soldiers. Researchers with N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), located at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, are infusing protein powders and flours, the kinds found at health and nutrition stores, with health-promoting compounds from kale greens and muscadine grapes.
The research addresses a critical military challenge: how to provide balanced diets (inclusive of fruits and vegetables) to troops in the field that will have taste appeal while still maintaining shelf life, portability and health-protective functionality. The answer, PHHI researchers believe, lies within a proprietary technology they’re using to develop nutrient-enhanced food ingredients, which can then be used to make drinks, power bars, cookies and other healthy snacks for soldiers.
The Center for Advanced Processing and Packaging Studies (CAPPS), a National Science Foundation-initiated program designed to foster partnerships between industry and universities, has awarded $60,000 in grants to help support the project. The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, the Army’s organization responsible for developing and managing soldier-support items like food, clothing and shelters, an industry member of CAPPS, stands to benefit from PHHI’s efforts.
Research shows a strong relationship between strenuous physical activity and mental stress – common experiences for many military soldiers – and inflammation and negative immune system responses, which in turn can increase the risk of injury and poor mental and physical performance. Combat rations that are supplemented with natural, safe and effective fruit and vegetable compounds may counteract some of those negative health impacts and reduce the risk of experiencing them, according to Dr. Mary Ann Lila, PHHI director and project research coordinator.
“Fresh produce is a critical component in everyday diets and health, especially for soldiers who are exposed to harsh conditions and increasingly demanding mental and physical challenges,” said Lila. “Natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables can help increase physical and cognitive capacity, improve immune function and inhibit chronic disease development in soldiers.”
A primary barrier to the seemingly straightforward solution of having soldiers eat more fruits and vegetables has been storage and transportation. Most fruits and vegetables have a short shelf life, making it difficult to ship produce to certain parts of the world in a timely or cost-efficient manner.
“Soldiers stationed in certain areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa or similar locations, which include both literal deserts and food deserts, are often in situations where they can’t grow or even import fresh fruits and vegetables due to climate conditions and short expiration dates,” explained Lila. “They’re often substituting pills and traditional health bars for fruits and vegetables, so soldiers have had to sacrifice the health-promoting bioactive compounds that can only be found in fresh produce – until now.”
Fruit and vegetable powders: Cost-efficient, shelf stable and flavorful
It starts with fresh produce. Using a proprietary technology developed by N.C. State and Rutgers universities, Lila’s team of PHHI researchers extract healthy compounds from muscadine grapes, like anthocyanins, the pigments that give produce its blue, purple or red color and combat chronic diseases and cancer, as well as compounds from kale, like glucosinolates that provide cancer-fighting properties.
The kale and muscadine extracts go through a series of steps to remove unneeded sugars, fats and water, which reduces the final product weight and makes it easier to concentrate the health-promoting compounds. The resulting juice mixtures are combined with protein powders or flours – soy-based for the muscadine mix and hemp for the kale – to create healthy, shelf stable functional food ingredients.
This process makes for a low-calorie, lightweight and flavorful ingredient for food rations, according to Dr. Scott Neff, a PHHI research associate helping coordinate the work in Lila’s lab.
“By using edible proteins and flours, we ensure a shelf life far exceeding that of fresh produce. Plus, the ingredients convey the stuff that soldiers want and need from rations, like nutrients, variety, portability and flavor.”
The researchers are still creating prototype functional foods, testing for efficacy and shelf stability, and conducting sensory and nutritional analyses. The team is also looking at using other types of flours, like whey protein, in additional food ingredients. They expect promising results and food products for potential military applications by spring 2014. Jorge Guerrero, a visiting research scholar from Mexico, also contributed to the research and development of the fresh produce-infused ingredients.
“No one else has had the resources or the impetus to tackle the complex biochemical pathways within economically important plants that give rise to natural products that make a difference for human health,” said Lila. “That’s the unique component of this project and where PHHI makes a big difference.”