The 2018 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) is the most recent addition to an ever-growing collection of studies showing that consumers’ preference for food without artificial ingredients is a trend that’s here to stay. Of the more than 1,000 Americans surveyed on behalf of the IFIC, a remarkable 70% said they would choose to give up a favorite, familiar product for an alternative one that has no artificial ingredients. Not surprisingly, this strong preference has the entire food industry racing to find and deploy natural substitutes for commonly used artificial food additives.
However, replacing artificial ingredients with natural ones isn’t always a simple task. One particular category of additives that has food manufacturers in a bind is preservatives. These ingredients play an essential role in helping food to remain fresh and flavorful, not to mention safe for consumption, over time. At present, however, there simply aren’t very many natural alternatives to synthetic preservatives. This means that many food manufacturers have to make a difficult choice between including artificial ingredients in their products—which clearly goes against current consumer preferences—or producing foods with a shorter shelf life, and thus a greater chance of going to waste.
Fortunately, a possible solution may soon be at hand thanks to the efforts of a team of researchers at Penn State University. According to the results of their recently published study, a type of natural antioxidant found in grain bran has the potential to be an effective replacement for the synthetic antioxidants that the food industry currently uses as preservatives. Read on to learn more about the study and what its results could mean for the future of natural preservatives.
A look at the Penn State study
As summarized by Andrew S. Elder, a Penn State doctoral candidate in food science and one of the study’s co-authors, the researchers’ work sought to identify new natural antioxidants that could effectively extend the shelf life of food while at the same time meeting consumers’ demand for the reduced use of artificial ingredients. For this particular study, the researchers focused on a class of compounds called alkylresorcinols (ARs), a kind of natural antioxidant found in grain bran. Plants like wheat, rye, and barley naturally produce ARs to help prevent organisms such as mold and bacteria from growing on the grain kernels. The Penn State researchers wondered if—from a chemical standpoint—ARs would have the same preservative effect on food.
To test their hypothesis, the research team developed a technique to extract and purify ARs from rye bran. They then studied the ARs’ effectiveness at preserving omega-3 oil in an emulsion (an emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that are normally unblendable, like oil and vinegar). Omega-3 oil was chosen as a test ingredient because it’s an increasingly common practice in the food industry to add these healthy oils to foods that don’t normally contain them. However, because omega-3-rich oils have a shorter shelf life, the foods to which they are added tend to spoil more quickly. Typically, the food industry solves this problem by adding synthetic antioxidants to these types of foods, but more natural antioxidants would be a welcome alternative.
When tested on omega-3 oils in an emulsion, the rye bran ARs did act as effective preservatives: the oils did not spoil as rapidly as they did when no antioxidants were added. The team then conducted tests to compare the performance of the ARs to two other antioxidants commonly used by the food industry: a natural antioxidant called alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E) and a synthetic antioxidant known as butylated hydroxytoluene.
Although the ARs did not work as well in this round of experiments as either of these other antioxidants, the Penn State researchers noted that this could have been because the AR extracts they were using were not entirely pure, which may have reduced their effectiveness. In addition, rather than using distinctive AR “strains,” the researchers were using a blend of different ARs, each with a different molecular structure.
What’s next for this research?
The Penn State experiment has been an important first step in assessing whether ARs have the potential to be an effective natural preservative. Future research will focus on the individual types or strains of ARs in order to determine whether particular AR types are, on their own, more or less effective than the synthetic antioxidants conventionally used at present. The hope, as stated by Elder, is that ARs will eventually be available on the market as a safe, effective, and consumer-friendly natural option for the food industry.
The Penn State researchers also emphasized the additional benefits that could come from using ARs to replace synthetic antioxidants. One is waste reduction. As mentioned, ARs are derived from the bran layer of cereal grains, which are usually discarded by the food industry. Producing ARs from bran, however, would allow this “waste” product to be transformed into something useful. In addition, ARs have important human health benefits, which include protection against cancer (according to a review published by European Food Research and Technology). Adding them to products could therefore help to improve our health, as well as the shelf life of our food.