Story by Katharine Tuerke, a U of G student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)

Ryan West

Kraft Dinner is a quick and inexpensive meal for many university students. But demand for healthier alternatives means this low-cost student staple may soon have a healthier twist, as University of Guelph researchers are giving whole grain mac and cheese a taste test.

Food science professors Lisa Duizer and Koushik Seetharaman and master’s student Ryan West are trying to determine just how much whole grain can be incorporated into the popular student meal.

“Consumer demands for healthier alternatives are pressuring companies to provide more nutritious options,” says Duizer.

Whole grain foods are packed with fibre and nutrients because they contain the entire grain, including the germ, endosperm and bran. But these components can also change the taste, texture and appearance of a product like pasta – ultimately affecting consumers’ opinion of the food.

To investigate this, Duizer and West used a trained panel of Guelph residents to systematically assess the intensity of flavour and texture of macaroni made from zero-, 25-, 75- and 100-per-cent Canadian western hard white flour.

As the amount of whole grain increased, panelists rated the pasta as more bitter and rough while firmness of the pasta decreased.

“Pasta can be an easy way to add whole grain into your diet because it’s usually served with a sauce, which helps mask changes in flavour,” says West.

So the researchers did just that. They investigated how adding two different cheese sauces would change the flavour profile of the whole grain pasta. One sauce was made using the regular orange powdered cheese and the other was a low-sodium version.

“Canadians are realizing the health impacts of a high sodium diet and want low sodium products,” says Duizer. “But reducing the salt content and keeping the flavour is the big challenge for many food producers.”

The panel tested both types of cheese sauces with the zero-, 25-, 75- and 100-per-cent whole grain pasta and without pasta. The cheese sauce reduced the starchiness and bitterness of the whole grain pasta.

Panelists rated the cheese sauce alone as sour and salty but this changed when the cheese was paired with the pasta. The cheese with the zero-per-cent whole grain pasta was rated as bitter but neither was considered bitter when assessed separately.

“Consumers want more high fibre, low sodium products,” says Duizer. “This data will provide industries with useful information for future whole grain product development and reformulation.”

Next, they will compare the results from the panel to those found using a machine that characterizes flavour, called a selected-ion flow-tube mass spectrometer.

The research was done in collaboration with the Department of Food Science at the University of Milan.

Funding for this project was supported by MITACS-Accelerate and Kraft Mills (Mississauga).