“We did see an increase in soluble phenolics, but it was so small, you could have gotten the same benefit from going to the refrigerator and eating a few blueberries,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer says.
Despite the less-than-ideal outcome, the studies represent important steps forward for food science researchers and the food processing industry. First, the lab-bench-size process developed and demonstrated by the researchers in the Journal of Visualized Experiment sallows testing of small batches of experimental corn lines. “Before this project, the only published study on cornflake processing used a sample size of 45 kilograms. We worked with ag engineers to get it down to 100 grams, literally a 450th of the size,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer says.
They found that the biggest changes in phenolic content were happening at three stages of the dry-milling process: whole kernel, flaking grit, and toasted cornflake. “Since we now have the process miniaturized and can control everything in the lab, we can also start figuring out how we can change the process to recover more of these compounds in the end product,” says Martin Bohn, co-author of the studies and associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.
Although the phenolics didn’t make it to the final product, they weren’t lost entirely. “We have to focus on the bran and other ‘waste’ products,” Bohn says. “Is it possible to extract these compounds and fortify the food with them? This is what I think is important. Our study showed that at the beginning, there’s variability in corn hybrids for all these compounds but through processing, it’s all leveled off, it’s all gone. But they’re still in the co-products, and I think we could actually recover them and add them to the end product.” Butts-Wilmsmeyer says fortifying processed foods with health-promoting, cancer-fighting phenolics could benefit people without easy access to fresh foods, such as Americans living in food deserts. “These itty-bitty compounds are tied to everything,” she says.