Nutrition, Food Safety and Quality
Opening Up Data for Better Nutrition and Health
A new database is making it easier to find the nutrients contained in manufactured or branded foods sold in supermarkets throughout the United States. This new ARS Branded Foods Products Database, created by a public-private partnership, contains 215,000 items and is linked to the National Nutrient Database. The new ARS database makes it easier to search for specific food items by brand name instead of a generic description and provides a more complete picture of the variability in products and nutrients they contain. The new database has generated more than 22 million page views by 1.6 million users since coming online October 1, 2016. Consumers are using it every day to learn about the nutritional qualities of what they are eating. Researchers are using it in a number of ways, too, including connecting changes in the food supply to public health outcomes.
Making Tires From a Desert Shrub
The U.S. tire industry currently relies 100 percent on imported natural rubber, which makes up 80 percent of a tire. Finding a domestic supply has been a national priority since World War II, when the Japanese cut off U.S. rubber supplies from Asia. But finally, there is an alternative. Guayule (pronounced "gwai-u-li") is a flowering shrub native to the southwestern United States, and it's been studied extensively as a possible source of natural rubber, organic resins, and biofuel feedstock. Developing guayule rubber for use in tires is considered a national priority for supplementing the ever-growing need for rubber, both worldwide and for the U.S. tire industry. With funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), ARS scientists have led a collaborative research effort and made a series of breakthroughs in processing, stabilization, and performance that are allowing passenger tires to be produced with guayule rubber. The tires, developed by an industry partner, have passed testing required by the U.S. Department of Transportation and more stringent internal industry tests. Guayule-rubber tires with exceptional wear and performance are now available commercially at prices comparable to those of high-performance tires made from traditional rubber.
Article: Guayule’s Past Meets Its Future
That’s a Wrap—and You Can Eat It, Too!
Most foods are wrapped in petroleum-based plastic packaging, which creates a lot of waste that doesn't decompose easily. ARS scientists have developed a biodegradable edible film from casein, a milk protein, which can be used as a food wrap. It is 500 times better at sealing off food from oxygen, which causes spoilage, than the petroleum-based plastics now being used, so it keeps foods fresher longer. The milk-based film has a number of potential uses. It can be made into tea-bag-sized pouches that dissolve in hot water to release instant coffee or soup. It can also be formulated for use as a coating for breakfast cereals to keep them crispy in milk, replacing high-calorie sugar coatings used for that purpose. To make the product, a novel electrospinning technique is used to produce very fine porous mats of casein nanofibers with small diameters but large surface areas. It's because of their large surfaces that the fibers can be formed into films for edible packaging materials. The technique also can be used to introduce intense colors, flavors, or textures within or on foods and can deliver nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, with the foods. This new cost-effective, sustainable, biodegradable, environmentally friendly, edible milk-protein film is currently being tested by the Lipton Soup Co. for potential use in the production of various food products.
Addressing a Major Health Threat
Antibiotics and antimicrobial agents have been saving lives since the 1940s, but their overuse has led to the rise of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In a troubling trend in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics every year, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. That makes antimicrobial resistance one of the most serious health threats known to both humans and animals. In the search for alternatives to antibiotics, ARS scientists have worked with public and private partners to develop animal vaccines, antibody therapies, and strategies for enhancing the immune systems of farm animals. In Fayetteville, AR, ARS scientists patented and licensed a phage—a virus that naturally kills bacteria-that is now being used to reduce disease in millions of chickens. ARS researchers in Athens, GA, were the first in the United States to find a bacterial gene in livestock that causes resistance to colistin, an important antibiotic drug. In College Station, TX, ARS scientists patented a pre-harvest feed additive that significantly reduces post-harvest E. coli levels in livestock and poultry.
A Scientific Gut Check—Understanding Microbes
When you eat, you're really eating for two: yourself and the community of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that inhabit your intestines. Many of these microbes play a vital role in helping break down and metabolize the food that we eat. Others can make us sick. These intestinal inhabitants are collectively known as our "gut microbiome," and scientists are just beginning to realize the complex role they play in our body. They're trying to determine how the types and number of species that comprise it affect our health, particularly in relation to diseases and conditions such as Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Towards that, ARS scientists in Wyndmoor, PA, are using a device known as "SHIME," short for Simulator of Human Intestinal Microbial Ecology. The device offers a way to study the influence of dietary changes on the activity of these microbes in a simulated environment outside the human digestive tract. Ultimately, the findings could lead to new bioactive food ingredients derived from agricultural byproducts that bolster health-promoting members of the gut microbiome while inhibiting those that can cause harm.