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Research Roundup: Looking for answers

UNF nutrition and dietetics students conducting research with elementary school kids

Faculty members and students at the University of North Florida — in virtually all disciplines — are conducting research in hopes of discovering useful knowledge and answers. Here are a few questions that UNF researchers hope to answer in areas relating to food, diet and nutrition.

How do I get a picky eater to try news foods? 

On behalf of all parents who have tried — often unsuccessfully — to introduce new foods to their picky eaters, Dr. Leslie Kaplan and Dr. Corinne Labyak are researching a food-tasting methodology that just might offer some hope in the age-old struggle between children and those good-for-you fruits and vegetables. 

The goal for the three-year study is to slice away at food neophobia — the fear of trying new foods — and replace it with a culture of adventurous eating. Proving that not all research takes place in quiet laboratories, the UNF professors are conducting their work in the lunchroom of Holiday Hill Elementary School each week, bringing food tastings to nearly 700 children.

Using a no-pressure tasting method within an environment of positive peer pressure, the researchers are hoping to please the palates of even the pickiest eaters.

“We are trying to get rid of the power struggles,” Kaplan said. “We tell the children beforehand what the food may taste similar to and then encourage them to try a bite-size portion: sniff it, lick it, taste it or don’t — it’s your choice. As we continue the program, we hope that the culture of adventurous eating will become the norm, and kids will be more willing to try new foods.”

The professors chose two classes per grade for the research — 10 weeks in the fall and again in the spring. A survey is used in week one and repeated in week 10 to measure attitude; tastings are used to measure behavior. While all students in the school will be offered the food tastings, only responses from the selected classes will be included in the study. The research team also is conducting a control group at Louis S. Sheffield Elementary.

As a dietitian, Labyak believes that lessening neophobia may have important health implications. “With the prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in our country, it is so important to start at a young age to impact their future habits and health,” Labyak said. “The kids tend to enjoy the tastings; it’s almost like a science experiment.”

About a dozen seniors from UNF’s Nutrition and Dietetics Flagship Program in the Brooks College of Health helped prepare and distribute the food during the fall research period, as well as record reactions for later data compilation. The tastings have ranged from heirloom tomatoes to kiwi to bok choy to star fruit, with plenty more to come. 

Would private web-based sessions be an effective counseling option for those with eating disorders?

 Dr. Zhiping Yu leads research studying the effectiveness of online counseling.Many people who need the help of a counselor to combat an eating disorder never seek treatment. One big hurdle patients must overcome is the discomfort they feel when visiting an office for a face-to-face consultation.

Dr. Zhiping Yu, assistant professor in nutrition and dietetics, sees technology as a possible strategy to improve access to treatment for those suffering from the country’s most prevalent eating disorder — binge eating.

“Perhaps being able to stay home where you are comfortable and use video technology will eliminate a bit of the discomfort level,” Yu said. “Feelings of shame and often depression accompany eating disorders and make people avoid the help they desperately need.”

Binge eating disorder affects about 2 percent of men and 3 to 4 percent of women in the United States and is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food in a brief period of time, with a feeling of loss of control, Yu said.

Before people can benefit from the convenience of a web-based approach, the researchers must show that it is as effective as the traditional in-person approach, a well-established, well-documented and effective treatment program.

To compare the effectiveness between treatment methods, Yu has set up two groups, keeping the components the same for both: a 12-week timeframe with the same counselors, dietitians and topics for each session.

In fact, the only difference is that half of the patients meet in person and half meet online via specialized software created for video consultations. Jill Snyder, UNF instructor in Nutrition and Dietetics, is one of the dietitians working with Yu on the research.

Yu, and research staff, recruited potential patients from campus, weight-loss clinics and various agencies in the community. The project has about 20 participants ranging in age from 19 to 60-plus years.

“I wanted to design a practical and impactful study that can help people’s lives,” Yu said. “A technology-based approach seems to make sense for a new generation. We look forward to the results of whether or not the web-based treatment program will be as effective as the traditional.”

Can biochemistry research improve the taste of wine and beer?Professor Michael Lentz standing in front of bottles of wine. Special thanks to Wine Warehouse

Most people sipping on wine aren’t thinking about biochemistry. Nor are they aware that a rogue species of yeast is causing wine makers to lose hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Nature’s ever-present struggle for survival is to blame. It seems the microscopic yeast try to feed on the grape-growing plants, which causes the plants to release a self-protecting chemical to fend off the yeast. In defense, the yeast releases a chemical of its own — often winning the fight — and at the same time spoiling the taste of the wine.

Since wine production focuses on taste, the Oregon Wine Board has provided a three-year grant to Dr. Michael Lentz, associate professor of biology at UNF. In essence, they want him to find a way to throw the fight.

That’s where the simplicity of the analogy ends and the complexity of the research begins.

“We are doing gene cloning to isolate and characterize one of the enzymes that the yeast uses,” Lentz said. “In doing this, we hope to develop inhibitors that prevent the yeast from making the compounds that negatively affect flavor.”

To complicate the process, Lentz said there are many different strains of this yeast — which carry the name Brettanomyces — and each reacts differently. Lentz is looking to discover how the biochemistry works for each strain.

He has also been researching the reactions of the yeast to the barley plant. “Both grapes and barley produce chemicals to rid themselves of the yeast, but they’re slightly different, so when the same strain of yeast gets a hold of them, it makes a different-tasting chemical in response,” Lentz said. “The ones in barley are often described as spicy, which you don’t always want in beer, but sometimes you do. It can also produce fruity characteristics in beer.”

With the help of students, Lentz has been conducting the research for three years. The most recent grant will help continue the research. While he and the students have made progress and published some initial findings, the work continues.

“Research evolves,” Lentz said. “You answer some questions and new questions surface. To answer those you go down another path.”

For those who might be wondering, none of the research paths include beer or wine tastings, according to Lentz — just microscopes and test tubes.

Will researchers understand what controls aging — in your lifetime?

Professor John Hatle and a student conduct research.The biology of how humans age is one of life’s great mysteries, and the search for clues may become the next Holy Grail of scientific research.

According to Dr. John Hatle, a professor in UNF’s Department of Biology, yesterday’s greatest medical challenges — infectious diseases — have been replaced with age-related killers: heart disease and cancer. Finding ways to slow aging, therefore, would enable people to remain healthier longer.

In comparison to the number of years spent on disease research, Hatle, ironically but unintentionally, calls the study of aging — a young field of biology.

“A hundred years ago, a person might face tuberculosis at age 35,” Hatle said. “Now many people are living to an age where their hearts and other physical systems are giving out. As a result, the research question has now become, ‘How do we slow the aging process?’”

Much of the research to date has focused on diet and the quantity of food eaten; studies have shown that restricting an animal’s diet by 30 percent will extend life span. Based on this fact, researchers hypothesized that a restricted diet would cause the food to be sent to different areas of the body to help the animal survive.

Not true. Using grasshoppers as the main species for understanding the process in all animals, Hatle has been tracking where ingested nutrients travel in the body and has shown that reduced diet does not alter where the nutrients travel or at what speed — negating a generation of thinking.

“New research in a variety of animals with a variety of approaches has now shown that simply reducing the protein — without reducing levels of fats and carbohydrates — also extends life span,” Hatle said. “So now we’re focusing on tracking specific building blocks of protein.”

Since beginning his life span research a decade ago, Hatle has received three grants totaling $939,000 from the National Institutes of Health — the most recent more than $430,000.

“People tend to think that life span is fixed, and it’s not at all,” Hatle said. “There are certain limits obviously, but within a species, it’s more plastic than people think.”

Hatle is pleased that his UNF lab has already made contributions to the overall knowledge of aging. “A small lab like this, if we can contribute in some way to the broader efforts in understanding how life span is regulated, I will feel we have succeeded,” Hatle said.