Recognized for her accomplishments in the field of bioactive plant compounds and their translation to healthy foods, Dr. Mary Ann Lila was awarded the 2020 Babcock-Hart Award from the Institute for Food Technologists (IFT), the leading professional organization for food scientists in the United States. Lila is the Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute and David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at NC State University.
Babcock-Hart Award winners have attained distinction by contributing to food technology, resulting in improved public health through nutrition or more nutritious food. In her research career, Lila has led a number of impactful research projects that have focused on functional foods and health-relevant food ingredients. Fruits and vegetables may be naturally healthy, but consumers often choose food products over fresh produce. Building shelf-stable food products that taste good and provide nutritional benefit, beyond caloric value can be a challenge. Lila has found solutions to those challenges by bridging the fields of plant science, food science and nutrition science.
Gummy snacks are not new to the market but often have nutritional content more similar to candy than the fruit they may be shaped like. Using protein-polyphenol technology developed in the Lila lab, a food technology start-up company developed a low sugar, high protein gummy that delivers bioavailable phytoactive flavonoids. Flavonoids are a class of plant compounds that have been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anticancer, and neuroprotective activities. Processing (cooking, for example) can alter the bioavailability of plant compounds; this refers to how the compounds are absorbed as they are digested and whether the beneficial compounds, or metabolites of a particular compound, are available to the target tissue in the body. If the health beneficial plant compounds can not be used by the body; if they are bound by a food matrix that does not allow absorption by the target tissue, the compounds may pass through the body as waste, with no health benefit conferred. Lila’s food technology research that led to binding a protein to a polyphenol not only stabilized and concentrated the health protective properties of the fruit or vegetable, but also increased the bioefficacy for delivering the phytoactive compounds through the gastrointestinal tract.
The same protein-polyphenol technology has been utilized by NASA, the US Army and others to develop protein bars with health protective phytoactive density. A drawback of traditionally manufactured protein bar products, is a bar hardening phenomenon that occurs as the proteins naturally breakdown over time, ultimately rendering the bar inedible. Serendipitously, Lila discovered that the binding of the polyphenol to the protein stabilizes the protein, so that, even over an extended period of time, the bar remains soft. Not only has the technology led to a shelf-stable high energy bar, the polyphenol component delivers health supporting fruit phytoactives when fresh fruit may not be readily available. Beyond the snack food aisle, some instances where this may have an important role include military rations, supplemental food products in developing countries where the population relies on seasonal harvests, or perhaps even a mission to Mars.
Lila’s research advances also include a protein-polyphenol complex that has been studied for its ability to attenuate the allergenicity of food proteins, such as those found in peanut, soy and egg. She is also vice president of the Global Institute for Bioexploration, a consortium dedicated to ethical natural product-based biodiscovery. Partnering with elders and youth in indigenous populations, such as those along the Yukon River in Alaska, Lila has explored and helped define the health-preventive properties of native plants that are important to the traditional ecological knowledge of the community.