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UCM Researchers Collaborate with Students in Developing Lipid Oxidation Index for Foods

By Jeff Murphy, November 29, 2018

Meera Penumetcha, Ph.D.
With help from a $10,000 grant, Meera Penumetcha, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology and Psychology, is leading a study at the University of Central Missouri that will help further the understanding of dietary oxidized lipids.

WARRENSBURG, MO – A study designed to help further the understanding of dietary oxidized lipids is being conducted at the University of Central Missouri with assistance from a $10,000 grant. This project has not only created an opportunity to look at an issue that may have implications for human health, but it is also allowing students to collaborate with faculty on meaningful research.

Meera Penumetcha, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology and Psychological Science, obtained the grant and is leading the research effort for the project titled “Development and Validation of Lipid Oxidation Index for Commonly Consumed Foods.” Funds came from the Sugar Association under the Research Dietetic Practice Group (RDPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Penumetcha is collaborating on the project with other UCM faculty members in areas such as chemistry, computer science, and mathematics. She had worked on a pilot study prior to receiving the grant. The award from the RPDG helps pay for supplies needed for this study in addition to support for two student researchers, who will assist in the project over the next year.

Simply put, lipids are natural, organic substances that contain fats and oils and are an important part of a diet. The body needs small amounts of them for normal function, including to help digest and absorb food properly.  Oxidation, however, can impair the quality of lipids ingested in the final food product. “Oxidized lipids arise in foods when they are manufactured or processed,” Penumetcha said.

 Previous studies of cell culture and animal models have suggested this can disrupt glucose metabolism. While the UCM study may have many other benefits, it is a first step in addressing how a certain type of dietary fat might be related to the risk of diabetes, Penumetcha noted. Through this research, she hopes to develop a tool to help individuals better understand what lipid oxidation in common foods means to them.

“For me to be able to translate this information to humans, there is no data base that actually gives us the oxidized lipids levels in a wide variety of foods,” she said.

Collaborating with faculty and students, Penumetcha’s goal is to develop an index that quantifies lipid oxidization levels in common foods.  To accomplish this, she has collaborated on chemical assays of certain foods in cooperation with Dr. Mandy Blackburn, assistant professor of chemistry, and worked with Dr. Dabin Ding, assistant professor, computer science, on analytics. She also sought the expertise of Dr. Paul Plummer, assistant professor, statistics, to develop a mathematical formula that will to help validate or predict amounts of lipid oxidation that could be found in certain foods.  

“If you took a recipe, for example, and if you look at things that are inherent in that recipe which would promote lipid oxidation versus things that would limit lipid oxidation, we come up with a ratio,” Penumetcha said.

She believes this study will provide opportunities for research that could be published in professional journals and shared with groups which have an interest in this topic. It also may be of interest to those who help set public policy related to foods. One of the most important aspects of the study to Penumetcha, however, has to do with the practical experience students are getting through their involvement in this research project. Among those who have devoted considerable time to this study is Traycie Williams, a junior dietetics and biology major and honors student who plans to graduate in fall 2020.

Williams received a $1,000 honors grant for his Honors 4000 capstone project that also has contributed to a portion of this research. It was used to purchase food, chemical reagents, and equipment that has been used in the quantification of oxidized food lipids.

“I have put a great deal of work into the project thus far,” he said. “That is, I have spent more than 250 hours reviewing scientific literature that is relevant to the project, cooking foods in oils of interest, extracting the oil from the foods that were cooked, and analyzing the products of oxidation by means of chemical assaying and spectrophotometry.

“My goal in joining this project, other than gaining research experience and fulfilling degree requirements, is to engage myself in the chemical aspects of living systems and molecular interaction,” Williams said. “I specifically designed my degree program to give myself the most complete understanding of the biological processes that grant and support life.”

Williams also was recently selected to participate in McNair Scholars, a program that prepares students for doctoral study. His goal is to perform translational research in the area of the human gastrointestinal tract.

“I intend to spend my career studying the biochemical processes of the gut and developing methods of preventing diseases associated with food and chemical exposure,” he noted. “Dr. Penumetcha’s project is based on research that suggests that consuming oxidized lipids disrupts glucose metabolism. Working on this project is an excellent opportunity for me to gain exposure to the scientific principles in my discipline and to gain experience that  will promote my success at the graduate level of study.”

While Penumetcha and her co-researchers further their study of dietary oxidized lipids, their work has opened the door for Williams and other students to truly experience learning to a greater degree.

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