Unique work as a food nanotechnologist uses food polymers to deliver nutrients while preserving and protecting our food
Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg
The UMD College of Agriculture & Natural Resources had two researchers honored on Web of Science Group’s 2019 list of Highly Cited Researchers, a list of influential names in science based on the impact of academic publications. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor in Entomology, was named for the fourth year in a row for his work in honey bee and pollinator health (read more here on vanEngelsdorp from the College of Computer, Mathematical, & Natural Sciences). But this year, Qin Wang, associate professor in Nutrition & Food Science, was honored as well for her 12 new high-impact publications in 2019 as an environmental chemist turned food nanotechnologist, known for creating food polymers that reduce our environmental footprint, keep food fresh and safe, and improve nutritional content.
A food polymer is a natural and biodegradable material that can be used to protect, preserve, and enhance our food products. From the preservative edible coatings on the outside of apples, to the reason you don’t see layers of vitamins in your vitamin water and your trail mix nuts stay crisp while being stored alongside dried fruit, food polymers are commonly used to improve food quality. They can also improve food safety, while delivering and protecting nutrients in food. According to Wang, her research is focused on the development and testing of food polymers as a food nanotechnologist across all of these uses, with a high impact in the field.
“When people think food science, many people think about food chemistry and processing, but food polymers don’t always come to mind,” explains Wang. “But they are very important because they preserve and protect our foods. They improve food safety and food quality, and are used to deliver added vitamins and nutrients.”
A major component of her work is enhancing nutritional value, using food polymers as a mechanism to encapsulate and target the delivery of nutrients through fortified functional food products like cereals, breads, and beverages that add vitamins and minerals. Bioactive components of your foods like vitamin A, D, E, curcumin, and omega-3s among others are not always easy to get and are vulnerable to degradation by environmental conditions during food processing and storage. “We can use food polymers to protect and improve nutritional functionality so nutrients are more easily absorbed by your body when consumed,” says Wang. Several papers in 2019 were published in enhancing these different nutrient delivery systems, including the development of new techniques using microgels to stabilize these components.
Food preservation and safety is also an important research area for Wang’s lab. “In my lab, we want to improve food quality and give people more access to nutritionally dense food products, while also improving food safety by using low toxicity antimicrobial agents like essential oils in food,” says Wang. “This work has a high impact on people’s health and lives.” In addition to publishing a paper in 2019 on a new framework to incorporate essential oils for antimicrobial properties into food films and packaging, these natural antimicrobial agents (that do not contribute to antimicrobial resistance) are being incorporated into edible coatings on fruits and vegetables like apples.
Wang has long-standing collaborations with the Maryland NanoCenter in Materials Science & Engineering and with researchers in bioengineering and electrochemistry at UMD. Since she joined UMD over a decade ago, Wang has cultivated another decade-long collaboration with Dr. Sunny Luo at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center at the United States Department of Agriculture, including several publications in the nutritional value of microgreens.
In addition to food safety, quality, and nutrition, Wang has a particular interest in developing biodegradable food packaging materials from food polymers to improve not only human, but environmental health. “As an environmental chemist by training, using food polymers to generate packaging materials that are sustainable, biodegradable, and have a low environmental footprint - that’s why I chose my program of study,” says Wang. “I love cooking, and I love eating healthy food, not only for myself but for my kids. I want them to live a happy healthy life, and I think these food polymers not only improve health and nutrition, but also improve the health of the environment and can produce less waste.”
Wang adds, “We want to decrease pollution. Little by little, we can do it, not by replacing all synthetic packaging at once, but by slowly introducing biodegradable packaging into the food system with the hope that someday, we will replace all of them.”
Wang’s unique work in food nanotechnology applies these principles to food polymers in ways that have never been done before, and she already has several publications slated to come out early in 2020, including a comprehensive review article entitled, “Advances in Using Nanotechnology Structuring Approaches for Improving Food Packaging.” This highlights her impact and expertise as a researcher, with three new assistant professors already coming out of her lab, one of which was honored as a Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher this year as well. She currently has three doctoral students, one postdoctoral fellow, and one visiting scholar in her lab, all dedicated to advancing this work even further. We look forward to her lab’s continued impact in food science, food safety, and nutrition.