Srinivas Janaswamy, a research assistant professor of food science, said many of the nutraceuticals, or nutritional supplements, added to foods today are not structurally stable.
Heat, light oxygen and other external factors could degrade the supplements, rendering them ineffective.
"There are many methods for adding nutraceuticals to foods, but the one thing they all have in common is instability due to non-rigid structures," Janaswamy said.
Nutraceuticals such as beta-carotene, lycopene, resveratrol and vitamins are thought to play a significant role in treating or preventing disease. Resveratrol, for example, is found in red grape products and is believed to help prevent cancer and benefit cardiovascular health.
Janaswamy's method involves creating crystalline-like fibers that embed the nutraceuticals, protect them from external influences and prevent degradation.
"Once the nutraceutical is enveloped, it is thermally protected,"he said. "Anything of interested can be used, even drug molecules, vitamins or hormones."
Janaswamy used iota-carrageenan, a long-chain carbohydrate, to encapsulate curcumin, the principle compound found in the spice turmeric, which is considered to be effective against inflammation, cancer and obesity. Iota-carrageenan is amorphous, meaning it lacks a defined structural arrangement.
It was stretched, forming well-oriented crystalline fibers, which then gained more structural organization.
In the fiber network, iota-carrageenan maintains a stable double-helical structure with small pockets between the helices that contain water molecules.
Janaswamy replaced the water pockets with curcumin, which was then protected by the sturdy iota-caarrageenan network. He said he envisions the encapsulated fibers could then be chopped into small particles. Diners could reach for the resveratrol or curcumin the same as they might salt or pepper.
Iota-carrageenan and other polysaccharide carbohydrates have GRAS status with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Janaswamy is currently working on delaying the release of the embedded compounds once consumed, as their current release time is about 30 minutes.
He said the time would need to be lengthened to about three hours to ensure the nutraceuticals reach the intestines, where they can be properly absorbed.
From the March 30, 2012, Prepared Foods’ Daily Update