University of Alabama researcher awarded USDA grant to improve flavor quality in foods

University of Alabama researcher awarded USDA grant to improve flavor quality in foods
Dr. Lingyan Kong’s research interests include developing food materials of unique structures and properties for improving food quality and nutritional benefits. (University of Alabama)

Dr. Lingyan Kong of the University of Alabama was recently awarded a $425,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to research and improve flavor use efficiency and stability in foods using supramolecular starch-flavor structures.

Flavor, the sensory impression of food, is determined primarily by the chemical senses of smell and taste. Flavor stability and release behavior are significant quality and acceptability factors for food, but they are difficult to control.

A common example used to describe the short-lived nature of flavor is how some chewing gum products provide a blast of flavor that lasts only several seconds or minutes.

To find innovative solutions to the challenges of food flavor use, Kong is developing a composition, known as supramolecular starch-guest inclusion complexation, to modulate flavor encapsulation and release as novel food ingredients.

“In food formulation, flavor compounds are often the most expensive ingredients,” said Kong, a UA assistant professor in the department of human nutrition and hospitality management. “But, these compounds are volatile and they can become unstable when exposed to heat or light, and their release from foods is difficult to control.”

The University of Alabama’s Dr. Lingyan Kong has begun patenting his cost-efficient scientific methods to make foods and medicines taste better. (University of Alabama)

The subject of supramolecular starch-guest inclusion complexation and its preparation have been studied in the past, but Kong is one of the first researchers to explore its practical applications. Through his research, Kong has invented a cost-efficient method to produce the supramolecular structures, and he recently started the process of having his composition and method patented.

“Starch is an important agriculture commodity that is relatively inexpensive,” said Kong. “During this process, starch molecules wrap around flavor compounds to form inclusion complexes that can improve flavor’s dispersibility and stability, ultimately controlling its release.”

Aside from improving and sustaining flavor release, Kong believes his method can help mask unpleasant tastes and odors in foods, as well as medications.

“Everyone has experienced certain ingredients in foods and medications that have an unpleasant taste or malodor,” said Kong. “The structure I created may have the ability to mask those undesirable senses by hiding those tastants and malodor compounds in starch, preventing them from being detected by the taste buds on our tongue or the olfactory receptors in our nose.”

According to Kong, the USDA-funded project will last three years. While the majority of Kong’s work will be done at UA, he will collaborate with Penn State University, where he earned his doctorate in food science. During the final stages of the project, Penn State will provide sensory analysis of the food formulations produced.

“Scientifically, we are working to understand how molecules assemble in the supramolecular structures and what controls their disassembling so we can start to manipulate flavor release,” said Kong. “Once we have a better understanding of the structures and properties, we can start to add the starch-based flavor ingredients to food, nutrition and pharmaceutical applications.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

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