Carnegie Mellon University researchers are adjusting the cell mechanics of certain leafy vegetables in Africa.
Their goal? To make the vegetation more palatable for malnourished infants and children.
Phil LeDuc, a professor of mechanical engineering, and Mary Beth Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, have won an extremely competitive Grand Challenges Explorations Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The award will enable them to explore nutrition for healthy growth of infants and children in underdeveloped countries.
"What we are doing is studying how to alter a plant's cellular and molecular structures to optimize release of nutrients during digestion," said LeDuc, who has courtesy appointments in the Biomedical Engineering, Biological Sciences and Computational Biology departments at CMU.
"The idea originated when we became interested in how structural mechanics affect the taste of food. We built off this idea in thinking about how we could apply it in an innovative and meaningful way to tackle global challenges especially for the health of children in poor regions of the world."
Both LeDuc and Wilson believe that generating widespread acceptance and consumption of nutrient rich plants like African leafy vegetables could significantly improve infant and child nutrition while curbing rising food costs.
Global food prices hit record highs in February and are expected to become even more volatile. The United Nations reports that more than 900 million people in the world suffer from hunger on a daily basis.
"We have chosen to focus initially on amaranth, a plant indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, due to its high content of provitamin A and other micronutrients. We hope that integrating amaranth leaves into feeding strategies as infants transition from breast milk to solid foods could contribute to a reduction in vitamin A deficiency," said Wilson, a CMU Dowd-ICES (Institute for Complex Engineered Systems) fellow from Bridgeport, W.Va.
LeDuc said the work involves significantly changing the palatability of the end food product. "These African leafy vegetables are perceived as 'poor man's food' with a bitter taste," LeDuc said. "We aim to change both taste and perception by reengineering the plant's cellular structure using traditional principles of cell mechanics that have been used for decades in areas such as heart disease and cancer."
CMU researchers say they also are tapping into the modern and cutting-edge methodology of "molecular gastronomy," the study of physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking.
Their culinary curiosity will be showcased next year in a new academic course titled "Culinary Mechanics," designed to explore the application of engineering principles to the science of food.
To learn more about Grand Challenges Explorations, visit www.grandchallenges.org.