Corn power

A breakthrough by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers has the potential to make food products healthier for people and give corn producers another market.

Dr. Ozan Ciftci, professor of biological systems engineering and associate professor of food and science technology, was the lead researcher on a project funded by the Nebraska Corn Board. He teamed with Dr. Regis Moreau, associate professor of nutrition and health sciences.

The pair of food science and technology virtuosi worked out of the UNL Food Innovation Center in Lincoln from July 2018 to June 2019. Their objective was find a way to combine curcumin with various foods to make them healthier.

Curcumin is a bright yellow chemical compound found in turmeric, a spice derived from the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa Linn), a member of the ginger family.

Curcumin has received much attention as a health-promoting food ingredient, Ciftci said. It has scientifically-proven health benefits, such as the potential to prevent heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Reportedly, it’s a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and may also help improve symptoms of depression and arthritis.

However, he said, the incorporation of curcumin into foods is a major challenge from a technological and food quality standpoint. It’s a crystalline powder that is insoluble in water. When it’s eaten, most of it isn’t able to make it to the bloodstream during digestion, Ciftci said.

To overcome this barrier to the health benefits offered by curcumin, he and Dr. Moreau developed the idea of nanoporous corn starch bioaerogels (NSB). The ingredient made from corn starch would ultimately improve the body’s ability to absorb curcumin.

NSB consist of organic forms made of corn starch that have pores which are very small. There are 27 million nanopores to the inch. Ideally, these porous formations would then be blended into bioaerogels which could be used to make curcumin more water soluble and digestible.

To make NSB, the scientists designed a three-step process. First they used water and heat to break down and dissolve the corn starch to form a water-based gelatin (hydrogel). Then they replaced the water in the hydrogel with ethanol producing an alcogel. Finally, they reformed the alcogel into an aerogel by exposing it to supercritical carbon dioxide (SC-CO2). This last step allowed them to extract the NSB without losing the desired structural characteristics.

Upon completion of this project, Ciftci and Moreau tested the ability to infuse the NSB with curcumin. They inserted curcumin into the ethanol phase of the process. During this time they found that increasing the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit improved the impregnation rate of the curcumin from 14.4 mg to 224.2 mg and resulted in a spherical shape.

After that, they developed a softer and less dense curcumin and NSB complex called CUR-NSB. At that point they tested the CUR-NSB complex in the lab to see how it would be absorbed. To do this they used microscopic living organisms. The tests showed the digestive absorption rate of the CUR-NSB was 173 times higher than that of crude curcumin, Ciftci reported.

He believes this project will develop a new functional ingredient for nutraceutical industries. It has the ability to make the health benefits of many water-insoluble compounds more accessible. And it could create new markets for corn and corn co-products.

Archer Daniels Midland has provided funding for further work in this area. Ciftci and Moreau hope to show the health benefits of this new form of starch-curcumin complex in animals.

More data could make the project more competitive for federal funding, they said. A proposal to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is in the works.

The next step is to submit another request to the corn board for investigating how this product could be used in food systems. The pair of innovators also plan to show the benefits of the product on gut health.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

Jon Burleson is the Midwest Messenger reporter, based out of eastern Nebraska. Reach him at jon.burleson@lee.net.