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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.

image

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).

image

Typical baby foods at the supermarket. (Photo credit: Bindvi Arora)

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.