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Research and Scholarship

Health and Flavour: The Food of the Future

“You are what you eat”, so the age-old adage goes – yet we often avoid eating healthier foods simply because their taste isn’t appealing.

But what you eat can have a profound impact on your health.

Now Professor Dolores O’Riordan, Director of UCD’s Institute of Food and Health, is developing new ways of combining food ingredients during formulation so they can deliver a healthy punch without hitting the ropes on taste.

One way to make food products more palatable is to add new ingredients. But Professor O’Riordan’s research takes a different approach; she formulates the existing food structures: the ‘macromolecules’ of protein, carbohydrates, fats and water to reshape the food’s taste and behaviour in the body.

She compares the process to architecture: “In architecture you start off with building materials but unless you combine them in certain ways, you don’t end up with a magnificent building”, she says “In the same way, we start with the building blocks of foods and combine these macromolecules together to make the nutrients more available to the body, to make ingredients more stable in the food or to fulfil a sensory need”.

A matter of taste

Ensuring that consumers enjoy a food product is paramount.

Before forging an academic career at UCD, Professor O’Riordan spent time working with Kerry Foods where she learnt the importance of cultural preferences in food.

Although preferences may vary across cultures, one thing that many can agree on is rancid oil, with fish oil being a case in point. The fatty acids fish contains have been linked to numerous health benefits, but when formulated in foods the oils can quickly become oxidised, leading to a foul taste and smell.

“You really need to protect those oils during food processing”, explains Professor O’Riordan. ”So we are putting protein coatings around the oils to shield them from exposure to oxygen and so avoid that nasty taste”.

Milking the Benefits

Professor O’Riordan’s expertise has also been sought for state-supported dairy research in Ireland. O’Riordan is the Principal Investigator at the Dairy Processing Technology Centre, and at Food for Health, an academic industry consortium hosted by UCD.

With Ireland’s milk production expected to increase vastly due to the removal of EU quotas, both centres want to use milk and its constituents in ways that add more value. That might mean discovering and isolating a ‘bioactive’ protein in milk that can help control blood sugar or reduce appetite, or to protect muscle mass in the elderly.

But ultimately those ingredients need to be packaged in food or drinks that people want to consume, notes Professor O’Riordan. “The peptides are quite bitter, so we are trying to create the food structures that will maximise the amount of peptides and minimise the bitter perception”, she says.

Professor O’Riordan’s expertise has also been sought for state-supported dairy research in Ireland.

Hands-on learning

Professor O’Riordan’s research also informs her teaching and practical sessions with students at UCD. “The research is incorporated directly into the syllabus, so students get the most up-to-date information”, she says.

“They also do a hands-on formulation project where they combine ingredients together to create a defined structure. It gives them a good sense of satisfaction when they work out the process and achieve it. It’s something you really can’t teach, they have got to see how those building blocks interact, and taste it for themselves”.

Featured Researcher:

Professor Dolores O’Riordan

Completed a PhD in Protein Chemistry and following some time as a research fellow at UCC and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York she moved to research in the industrial food sector.

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