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Food science that fools hunger pangs

Posted:  Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Food science that fools hunger pangs – sounds like good news! Feeling full for longer may be easier in future, according to chemical engineers at the University of Birmingham, who are developing special ingredients that have the potential to reduce hunger pangs once inside the stomach.

High fibre and protein-rich diets are generally recognised for their ability to control hunger. However, modern food consumption has drifted towards softer-textured foods that are often high in fat and sugars, according to reports by the Institute of Chemical Engineers in the UK. The result is energy-rich, easily digestible foods that are unable to create a sense of feeling full and satisfied.

It's one of the factors contributing to rising obesity rates and an estimated 1.4 billion people being classed as overweight (according to Obesity – Key facts by the World Health Organisation, March 2013).

A possible solution is to design foods that alter their structure once inside the body. This process can help control the rate of food digestion and also trick the body's sensory systems, especially in the digestive tract, to make you feel fuller for longer. One of the most interesting developments in this field is the creation of 'gels' that form once inside the stomach. Although a technically difficult area, where control of the gel's bulk, strength and longevity are affected by the unique pH environment found in the stomach, an important step forward has been made by a research team of chemical engineers at the University of Birmingham in the UK, which has been able to improve the control of gel formation inside the stomach.

The team's research has been based around gellan gum; an existing food ingredient found in products such as sweets, soft drinks and soya milk. They found that by altering the chemical structure of the gellan gum, they could change the properties of the gels, including important factors like its bulk, brittleness and texture.

David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), said: "Despite being a part of everyday life, the science of managing appetites is a complex interaction of several factors and is not yet fully understood. However, the sensory signals from food, the digestive tract and the body's energy reserves are all likely components affecting the desire to eat.

"Self-structuring gels like those researched by chemical engineers in Birmingham have a potentially important role in the future if we are to manage energy intake and address issues like obesity. Some theories suggest that the bulk created by the gels distend the stomach, altering the sensory signals, as well as the size and structure of food as it enters the intestines. This is likely to extend the time taken to digest the food and may help to reduce snacking.

"Hopefully, this latest development by chemical engineers will help us to take another step forward to change lifestyles and improve the health and wellbeing of millions of people struggling to maintain a balanced diet."

Jennifer F. Bradbeer, Robin Hancocks, Fotios Spyropoulos, Ian T. Norton, Self-structuring foods based on acid-sensitive low and high acyl mixed gellan systems to impact on satiety, Food Hydrocolloids, Available online 25 July 2013, ISSN 0268-005X, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodhyd.2013.07.014.

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