U of A scientists search for ‘natural’ additives

When Jodie McKague and husband Adam Larson buy groceries, they tend to shop only along the perimeter of the store.

EDMONTON — When Jodie McKague and husband Adam Larson buy groceries, they tend to shop only along the perimeter of the store.

As new parents of a two-year-old, they are making “a more conscious effort about foodstuff,” trying to buy “as fresh as possible.” For the McKagues, “preservative” is a bad word.

But scientists at the University of Alberta are working toward food additives that will appeal to people who avoid synthetic materials in their foods by focusing on the power of natural preservatives.

Mangos, wheat and barley are being studied in the hopes of making food safer, while not turning off the consumer opposed to having artificial compounds in their food.

“Food processing and distribution are facing new safety issues,” says Michael Gaenzle, a professor in the department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta.

“It’s very difficult to get ready-to-eat produce free of pathogens without damaging the product,” he says. “That’s a new challenge to keep the food supply safe.”

The researchers are trying to come up with preservatives to be used in ready-to-eat salads, fruits, sprouts, and luncheon meats — all of which are prone to the development of Listeria, salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacteria.

The potentially deadly micro-organisms can survive even when food is in the refrigerator and can spread to hands, counters, utensils and slicers.

Listeria killed 22 Canadians in an outbreak linked to deli meat in 2008. The Independent Listeriosis Investigative Review, released in July, reported that the number of listeriosis cases in Canada has doubled since 2005.

The U of A researchers are studying food germ killers that are naturally derived.

“If you replace chemicals with a natural preservative, without compromising safety, the (food) quality is better,” says Gaenzle.

Researchers have found bacteriocins — small proteins produced by lactic acid bacteria — can be used to kill Listeria in meat products. Gaenzle has also detected anti-Listeria compounds in polyphenols — a chemical present in all plants — derived from wheat and barley.

Christina Engels, a PhD student in the department, says the mango pits contain tannins —a substance in many fruits, such as grapes. “These tannins are really a strong natural preservative,” Engels says.

Engels says she chose mangoes for her study because “natural preservatives have a potential market among consumers looking at more organic and natural foods.”

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