Research chemists at a military center have taken a naturally occurring compound and polymerized it so that food can be stored for longer periods, material can be flame-retardant, and possibly drugs can fight cancer.
About 10 years ago, scientists found that they could polymerize epicatechin, an antioxidant found in green tea, white tea, and red wine. Research chemists at Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Massachusetts believed they could use the same tactic for other compounds, such as hydroxytyrosol, a potent antioxidant found in olive oil.
“As you make this polymer chain longer, it becomes a more potent anti-oxidant than what you actually find in nature,” says Nicole Favreau Farhadi, an NSRDEC research chemist. “(Due to the conjugation of this polymer, it) is more potent than its naturally occurring monomer.”
Polymerization is a relatively simple process, reports a U.S. Army website. Because the process has been refined and formulated, polymerizing can occur on a massive scale.
“We reported in two patents the homo- and co-polymerization of hydroxytyrosol for possible application as an anti-oxidant for food, maybe even cancer drugs,” says Ferdinando Bruno, also an NSRDEC research chemist.
“If you can eliminate or lessen the effect of oxygen on the food, then (it will) last longer,” says Favreau. “That’s why anti-oxidants are so important. You’ve probably seen how we have oxygen scavengers in rations. The contents of these packets bind with the oxygen, therefore blocking reaction with the compounds in food that cause degradation.”
Maillard browning is a process that occurs occasionally in food because of a reaction between a protein and a reducing sugar. This process is not desirable in baked goods and other items.
The research chemists are developing a model system that can test for Maillard browning inhibition. When they added polymerized and co-polymerized compounds to food, they realized that quercetin — another compound found in red wine — co-polymerized with hydroxytyrosol and was an anti-browning compound as well.
“So it’s kind of like twice the bang for the buck, because it’s an anti-oxidant and anti-browning,” Favreau says.
“And the radical that we want scavenged can stabilize in this structure,” Bruno adds.
The next step is to insert the compounds into publicly distributed food, but that would require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These compounds are natural but they have been synthesized and are thus technically a new compound.
However, another application of the development would not require FDA approval because the compounds would not be ingested. Flame retardancy is now being addressed through the center’s cooperation with researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“You want radical scavengers where the oxygen fuels the fire,” says Bruno. “If you deplete the oxygen from the environment close to the material, it will not burn.”
Chemists at the research center hope that they can find industry and academic partners to collaborate with them to advance their research and development. “We have seen a lot of outside interest for many other potential applications,” Bruno says.
Source: “Polymerization of natural compounds may offer food, safety, medical solutions,” U.S. Army, 8/1/12
Image by stu_spivack.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.