NEWS Food to Pharm

From Granny’s Carrots to Nanotechnology

Distinguished Professor of Food Science David Julian McClements has been busy this summer sharing insights on how modern science is turning food into medicine, which is one of the main focuses of his research at UMass Amherst.

David Julian McClements
David Julian McClements

“We’re living in the golden age of science,” McClements starts off his TEDx Amherst talk on the topic, which was recently posted online.

Take carrots, he says, recalling his childhood in England. His Granny always told him they were good for his eyes when he refused to eat them. More than 50 years later, he is carrying out research to show how the ability of bioactive molecules (carotenoids) found in carrots and other vegetables to improve eye health can be boosted using nanotechnology.

McClements, a leading expert in food design and nanotechnology, and his colleagues take carotenoids out of misshapen or ugly-looking vegetables and fruits – fresh produce destined to become waste – and then use nanotech to convert them into health-promoting food ingredients that can be incorporated into smoothies or other food products. In the long term, the consumption of these foods could help to prevent macular degeneration, a common disease of older age that causes loss of sight and blindness.

McClements’s expertise in nanotechnology also helped Knowable Magazine, the digital publication from Annual Reviews, address the topic of “Building a Better Edible.” McClements explains how two edibles with the same amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary intoxicating ingredient in cannabis, can have very different effects for the consumer – from nothing at all to a full day of mood alteration. It has to do with the way the cannabinoid, a fat-soluble molecule larger than the fat-soluble carotenoid molecule, is delivered to and absorbed in the digestive system.

In the article, McClements is quoted:

“Say you had a cannabinoid. It’s like an elephant and you want to get it transported somewhere,” says McClements, who wrote about cannabinoid delivery in the 2020 Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. “You couldn’t get it into a MINI Cooper. But if you put the elephant into a big truck, then you could carry it around somewhere.” 

McClements is also using nanotechnology to design tiny food-grade vehicles to incorporate cannabinoids into edibles and to increase their bioavailability after consumption. “Clearly, nanotech has a wide range of applications in the food industry to improve the quality, safety, healthiness and special effects in foods,” he says.