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Build a better puff: WSU scientist fights obesity by adding fiber to puffed snacks

Girish Ganjyal holds up a healthy puff in his WSU lab.
Holding up a healthier puff, WSU food scientist Girish Ganjyal is solving the challenge of adding more fiber to our favorite snacks (Seth Truscott-WSU Photo).

Tumbling hot and crackling from a big steel puffing machine, the snacks in Girish Ganjyal’s lab look and taste like any other puff.

But these puffs are different. Using carrots, apples, cherries and cranberries, Ganjyal, a Washington State University food researcher, is making puffed snacks and cereals with a high-fiber nutrition boost that could help fight obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

“People love puffs,” said Ganjyal, “and we buy a lot of them”—$70 billion worth of puffed foods were sold globally last year.

“Puffs are loaded with carbohydrates from refined starches, which are stripped of almost all their fiber,” he added. “I want to keep the taste and texture of a puff, but add fiber and nutrition.”

This spring, Ganjyal begins a four-year, $450,000 project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, researching ways to put filling fiber into healthier puffs.

Pomace power

An assistant professor and Extension food processing specialist in the WSU-UI School of Food Science, Ganjyal helps companies develop new, tastier and healthier ready-to-eat foods. For the past five years, he’s explored the challenge of getting fiber into puffed products.

Apples are Washington state’s most valuable crop, and regional juice and cider makers put out a lot of pomace, the high-fiber, nutritious pulp left behind after pressing. Pomace also comes from carrots, grapes and other produce, and great quantities of it go to waste.

“Snack makers would love to put it in a puff,” Ganjyal said.

Because of differences in the way it cooks, fiber from pomace doesn’t bond well with the starch that gives puffs their shape and crunch. At best, food makers can only add about 10 percent fiber before their puffs turn dense, crumbly and unappetizing.

WSU students and research display healthier puffs at their university lab.
From left, students Christopher Kerr, Pichmony Ek, Yujing Zhu, Assistant Prof. Girish Ganjyal, and Bon-Jae Gu show healthy puffs created at the WSU-UI School of Food Science. Ganjyal leads a team working to put more healthy fiber into puffed foods (Seth Truscott-WSU Photo).

“They’re just not puffs anymore,” Ganjyal said. “Consumers and companies want snacks that are healthy, but they also expect puffs to be crispy and enjoyable to eat.”

Keep it crispy

That’s where Ganjyal and his team’s latest project comes in.

Using sophisticated instruments, “we’re going down to the molecular level to understand how insoluble fiber and other parts of pomace connect with starch—so that when we make a puff, it stays a puff,” he said.

Ganjyal will work with collaborators including sensory expert Carolyn Ross of the WSU-UI School of Food Science; Steve Saunders, researcher at WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture; Helen Joyner, viscosity expert at the University of Idaho; and Kerry Huber, starch chemist at Brigham Young University.

“Many Americans need more fiber in their diets,” said Ganjyal. “If we can make more healthy puffs that people enjoy without compromising taste and texture, that’s a win for everyone.”