CMU researchers work toward better infant nutrition

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Serious mojito fans notice immediately when their mint isn't muddled. And the difference between a juiced and a diced tomato is tremendous.

The mechanics of food preparation play a vital role in taste and nutrient availability in what we consume.

Two researchers at Carnegie Mellon University hope to use this concept and a $100,000 award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to solve the problem of vitamin-A deficiency in infants in sub-Saharan Africa.

Their plan is to study how the microstructure of the region's native and abundant leafy-green vegetables can be broken down to make the bitter, yet nutrient-rich, plants taste more appetizing.

By learning more about the cellular and molecular structure of the plant, called an amaranth, the pair think they can forge a greater release of nutrients during digestion and create a transitional product for babies when they are weaned off breast milk and introduced to solid foods for the first time.

The researchers hope the pro-vitamin A found in the amaranth leaves will counter common problems of vitamin A deficiency, which is the leading cause of childhood blindness in the developing world. Other nutrients in the leaves include vitamin C, folate, iron, calcium, phosphorus and protein.

"Depending upon how you break up the plant is how much access that the body has for digesting the particular nutrients inside the plant itself," said Philip LeDuc, Ph.D., one of the researchers and a professor of mechanical engineering at CMU.

Mr. LeDuc and his research assistant Mary Beth Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, said they applied for the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenge Explorations award knowing it was a long shot.

No CMU researcher had ever won, and less than 3 percent of all submissions are funded.

"We wrote this up just kind of as a thought experiment thinking that we had no chance of winning this," he said. "The fact that Gates went after it shows that it's more than us who think it's a great idea."

The foundation said the grant calls for "unorthodox thinking." No initial data or research is necessary, and the proposals must be limited to two pages.

"All of our Grand Challenges Explorations grants are chosen due to their proposal to pursue unconventional ideas that could transform health and agricultural development in the world's poorest countries," said Michal Fishman, senior communications officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an email.

Funding for the project extends over 18 months, when the researchers attempt to show the foundation that their concept can become a reality.

The researchers then have the opportunity to apply for a second phase of funding, to the tune of $1 million, from the foundation to see the project into its implementation.

Mr. LeDuc, who gives much of the credit for the award to Ms. Wilson, said the pair were turned on to the idea when a ketchup company approached them, wanting to study how cellular mechanics can affect the taste of their product.

Ms. Wilson, a fan of "Top Chef," "Iron Chef" and other popular culinary shows, then built on the idea to ponder how changing the mechanics of preparing food can impact its nutritional value.

"You can change not only whether people like the food or not. You can change how much nutrients they can get in the first place," said Mr. LeDuc.

But the key to solving their puzzle doesn't only involve science.

The plant -- a warm-climate, drought-tolerant leafy vegetable growing as tall as 6 feet -- is found naturally and abundantly in Africa, but it is currently viewed as a poor man's meal. In order to make the amaranth more widely accepted, Ms. Wilson said they will also have to research how to change its social perception.

With commitments in Pittsburgh, the pair won't have an immediate opportunity to travel to Sierra Leone or Rwanda, where they are considering applying their work among impoverished infants and children.

The plant doesn't grow naturally in Pittsburgh, so the researchers are seeking the help of their neighbors.

Phipps Conservatory, which sits across the street from Mr. LeDuc's lab at CMU, will add the amaranth to their gardens next year.

Margie Radebaugh, director of horticulture and education at Phipps, said the partnership fits into the conservatory's focus on promoting healthy plants and edible foods.

She plans to plant the amaranth in the indoor garden this winter and plant another variety in the outdoor edible garden next spring.

"We're going to try to grow it in a variety of ways and see what gives us the best results," she said.

The researchers will share their knowledge and provide students with food for thought next year by leading a course on culinary mechanics at CMU.

The course will likely be open to undergraduates in the sciences, utilize the expertise of local chefs and offer a weekly cooking lab.

"We would love to have a last final project where we basically bring all of the students together to apply what you learn and have an Iron Chef-type competition," Mr. LeDuc said.

Dean Khosla, head of the College of Engineering at CMU, said the research has the potential to be "very high impact." He also said it positively reflects the university.

"What this means is that we have faculty who are world class and can compete in these extremely competitive programs," he said.

Taryn Luna: or 412-263-1985. First Published December 5, 2011 5:00 AM


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