University of Massachusetts Amherst food scientist Eric Decker has received a three-year, $469,775 grant to explore ways to improve the nutrition of foods high in saturated fats. Results should help food producers address recent new dietary guidelines recommending that Americans eat fewer of those fats to reduce heart disease risk.

The top three contributors of saturated fat in the American diet are crackers, cookies and granola bars, he explains, all of which are low in moisture, so reformulating them to reduce saturated fat content is challenging. Since these fats are replaced by liquid oils, the reformulation can reduce shelf life and nutrition and affect texture and flavor. Decker, professor and head of the food science department, received the funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

Decker says, “Improving the nutritional profiles of these products by substituting their saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids could have an important, positive impact on consumer health. However, it’s a challenge because fats high in saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and these solid fats play an important role in the texture of low-moisture foods; it could also have a negative impact on product quality.”

For this work, Decker and professors Lili He and D. Julian McClements will conduct a series of experiments using different fat types, antioxidants and processing conditions for making crackers to determine how different treatments and ingredients in low moisture foods affect how quickly they become rancid and whether this can be prevented. They will use a special food dye to mark fats in each experimental batch and a confocal microscope to visualize the crackers’ microstructure, condition of fatty acids in the mix and the ability of each recipe to resist rancidity.

The researchers hope to find a way that both large and small food processing companies that produce low-moisture foods can use more unsaturated fats, making these foods healthier. Another benefit of preventing these fats, or lipids, from going rancid will help to decrease the estimated 40 percent of food produced on the farm from being wasted due to spoilage, Decker adds, which costs over $180 billion in food per year.

Overall, Decker says he hopes this project will systematically develop a better understanding of the factors that affect fat spoilage in low-moisture foods. Through this knowledge, he and colleagues may be able to develop new technologies to prolong the shelf-life of low moisture foods, to decrease spoilage and reduce waste.