Linda Benedict | 3/20/2015 12:56:51 AM
While many of her colleagues work to discover the next big thing, Cristina Sabliov, an LSU AgCenter researcher and professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, likes to think in nano terms. Sabliov specializes in creating nanodelivery systems for bioactive substances that can improve people’s health.
Sabliov and her colleagues get their inspiration from industries not immediately associated with food, such as medicine – industries that pioneered the use of nanotechnology through high-cost research and development projects. Now that nanotechnology is more commonplace, the food industry is taking advantage of its lower cost and wider availability to create pathways for improved consumer health.
The medical field has successfully used nanodelivery systems in the treatment of cancer, and Sabliov and her team hope similar conveyance mechanisms will enable them to improve vitamin uptake and bio-viability.
“We can actually target food to a specific segment of the population,” Sabliov said. “Maybe if you are predisposed to cancer or cardiovascular disease, you will someday consume food that is designed for you specifically.”
Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Sabliov and her team design nanoparticles that can be loaded with vitamins, antioxidants and other healthy bioactives. The particles, which measure just one hundred nanometers in size, provide improved stability of the bioactive material they carry. Improved stability leads to greater efficiency in delivering the compound and, in turn, greater benefit for the recipient. Moreover, scientists can engineer the particles with time-release technology to match their specific delivery needs.
“Particle design is a function of its intended application,” Sabliov said. “This will dictate what kinds of materials you will choose to make your particles and how you design them.”
Consumers already encounter natural nanodelivery systems in products like vitamin D-enhanced milk, but use of engineered nanostructures in food science was not always a welcomed advance.
“When I joined LSU 10 years ago, the field of nanotechnology was quite new, especially in food,” Sabliov said. “There wasn’t a lot of interest in applying nanotech to food because of all the unknowns.”
Unknowns continue to exist today. Concerns over nanotechnology use in food include questioning what happens to the particles once they have delivered the bioactive agent to the body.
To ensure the nanostructures she develops are safe for consumption, Sabliov works with a team of scientists, including toxicologists, to better understand how the particles’ absorption, distribution, metabolizing and excretion affect the body.
“There’s a big push to engage consumers and find out what they know about nanotechnology and what they perceive as dangerous,” she said. “Companies are pursuing this type of research behind closed doors, and industry is listening to academia as well. I’m convinced we will see more of this technology in the market within 10 years.”
One promising avenue for the widespread use of nanotechnology in consumer goods is colorant nanoparticles for food. Many natural colors are unstable and not water soluble, which led food manufacturers to use artificial food colorants in their products. Under pressure from consumers to use more natural ingredients, companies like Kraft Foods, which recently announced it will discontinue use of two types of yellow food dye in its cartoon character-shaped macaroni and cheese, are seeking natural substitutes.
In collaboration with Carlos Astete, assistant research professor, Sabliov has been working on nanodelivery systems for natural food colorants that can replace artificial dyes in processed foods. They have had success with beta carotene, the orange color in carrots, which companies could potentially use to give macaroni and cheese its distinct color.
“If you put beta carotene in a particle covered by a surfactant,” Sabliov said, “then those particles are very nicely suspended in water and it will provide the uniform orange color you’re looking for, even though the compound inside is hydrophobic. We made that.”
Seeing her work on dinner tables across the country would be one of Sabliov’s greatest professional achievements. In her lab, she works to ensure the successful adaption of nanotechnology by the food industry through rigorous and comprehensive research that addresses both consumer and industry concerns. She is currently designing food using patented particles she created.
“It would be very rewarding if at some point during my career I could see some of the products that we design available on the market,” Sabliov said, “and if we see the technology is well-regulated and embraced by both consumers and industry. That would make me feel like I made a significant contribution to the field.”
Sabliov understands that the classroom is the gateway to the grocery store shelf, and she takes pride in training the future nanotechnology workforce. In addition to teaching a graduate class in nanotechnology, Sabliov also mentors young faculty both in the United States and abroad.
“This field will take off at some point,” she said. “My contribution is training and mentoring scientists who can then train students at other universities around the world. If we want to see the field develop and safely applied to foods, then we have to collaborate.”
Liz Lebrón is a communications graduate assistant with the LSU College of Engineering.
(This article was published in the Winter 2015 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)