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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Solving the complimentary feeding gap in infants using novel food technology

The food industry has always succeeded in adding novel food products to supermarket shelves, according to the needs and demands of consumers. In recent years, food scientists and industry researchers have focused on adding convenience and ease of utilization in food products. The trend is not only limited to foods targeting working adults and students, but also extends to processed food manufactured for infants and toddlers. Working parents have more options for feeding their baby healthy, complementary foods, which seems to be a promising development for parents and toddlers alike. Yet, as parents integrate convenience baby food into their everyday feeding practices, it is important to notice what goes inside a convenient baby food and to have a clear-eyed understanding of what might (or might not) make these foods “healthy.”

“Around the age of 6 months, an infant’s need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what is provided by breast milk, and complementary foods are necessary to meet those needs,” according to World Health Organizations sources. (WHO 2018 IYCF) While exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for infants up to 6 months of age and mother’s milk remains an excellent source of nutrients to meet the needs of infants and into toddlerhood, diets must be supplemented as the child develops and grows. During the weaning period, the optimum selection of food for babies becomes very important, which means ensuring that both macro- and micro-nutrient needs are met. Poor nutrition in toddlers can lead to common childhood problems such as constipation/diarrhea or deficiency-based diseases, such as iron deficiency anemia. Continued poor nutrition can cause a child to lack enough dynamism to explore, discover and learn as he or she should. Without the right foods in the right quantities, children may suffer cognitively as well as in the development of movement and motor skills and in height and muscle mass.

Small children require a greater amount of protein than adults (in terms of grams of protein per kg of body weight). Children of 6 months to 1 year of age require 1.5 g protein per kg of body weight, whereas the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for an adult is 1.0 g/kg of body weight. Why is this so? Namely, proteins are a major building block for the body and children of growing age have a higher demand. Even after 1 year of age up until to 3 years, RDA for protein for toddlers is estimated to be 1.2 g protein/kg body weight.

graph showing protein requirement of different aged children

Figure 1: Children of 6-12 months old require 1.5 g protein per kg of body weight. Children 1-3 years and 3-15 years require 1.2 g and 1.1 g respectively. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for people 15 years and older is 1.0 g/kg of body weight. (Image credit: Bindvi Arora)

Continuous lack of dietary protein – especially during weaning when mother’s milk is being replaced – may cause the child’s body fail to grow properly, lose muscle tone and have poor immune, heart and respiratory systems functioning. It is also important to note that catching up on protein deficiency during young ages is not easily achieved by having a high protein diet later in life. Instead, clinical diet recommendations and nutrition therapy would be required, and yet a full recovery is not guaranteed.

Thus, proteins are of vital importance during the early years of infancy and toddler stage, when the demands of development necessitate getting the right amount of proteins in the diet. Unfortunately, most convenience baby foods available on the market today are principally starch-based puffed products with minimal to zero protein content. Proteins are macronutrients, hence they should invariably be a major part of meals in human diets, and more so for toddlers.

Protein-energy malnutrition is a substantial concern for the world, especially in developing nations, but this type of protein deficiency can gain prevalence in Western diets too, owing to the higher dependence on starch-based processed convenience foods for children in these societies. In this context, children in developed countries may also enter the pathway to poor motor ability, cognition and obesity owing to high starch or starch only foods in diet, right from the weaning age.

Lack of protein-rich alternatives with functional properties ─ such as quick dissolving and mouth melting ─ as required in baby foods do not leave parents with many choices. To find a solution to this problem, research based at the Field of Food Science and Technology at Cornell University and supported in part by the Tata-Cornell Institute aims to develop an alternate protein rich convenience baby food using a novel technology – supercritical fluid extrusion (SCFX).

SCFX, developed at Cornell University by Prof. Syed S.H. Rizvi’s research group, is a process that combines the conventional extrusion process with a supercritical fluid. It employs supercritical carbon dioxide (SC-CO2) as a low temperature-blowing agent and thus permits the use of heat sensitive materials like proteins, micronutrients, nutraceuticals, etc. in the product formulation. As SCFX extrusion is conducted at low temperature (~60–80 ºC) and low shear conditions compared with conventional steam-based extrusion, nutritional loss is minimized. Moreover, SC-CO2-expanded extrudates show predominantly homogeneous closed cell structures (microcellularnuclei) and a nonporous surface, which facilitates flavor encapsulation and provides better textural control relative to products manufactured using steam-based extrusion. The capacity of supercritical CO2 to function both as a blowing agent and plasticizing medium leads to improved puffed and expanded products, uniform flavor and ingredient distribution, texturization of proteins and manufacture of microcellular foams.

The ability to manipulate functional properties of proteins using SCFX technology provides opportunities to create foods with higher protein content and functional properties similar to starch-based convenience foods designed specifically for toddlers. Exploiting this ability of SCFX, our research aims to identify the extrusion conditions that can increase the solubility and disintegration characteristics of proteins so as to incorporate them in baby foods without impacting the functional properties of the product. The technology, if perfected, will lead to the development of a healthy, nutritious and convenient weaning food for toddlers.

By Bindvi Arora

Bindvi Arora is a Tata-Cornell Scholar and first year PhD student in the Field of Food Science and Technology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the development of protein rich convenience foods for toddlers.