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Spring 2018 Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight

In the last couple of years, we have welcomed new faculty members that are bringing a great energy and drive to our department. Each have their own specialized area and we look forward to what the future brings with their research and teaching.

Dr. John Munafo:

John Peter Munafo Jr., is an Assistant Professor of flavor chemistry and natural products chemistry in the Department of Food Science. His research on flavor chemistry consists of identifying and quantitating key aroma- and taste-active molecules in foods and beverages. Through the characterization of sensory active molecules in different foods, our goal is to optimize desirable flavor in foods such as fruits, vegetables and processed foods. His work in natural products chemistry centers on the discovery and characterization of biologically active, health promoting molecules in foods and other natural sources such as medicinal plants and fungi. The objective is to discover and develop natural products that can be used to benefit agriculture, as well as human and animal health. The overarching objective of our integrated program is to guide development of healthy foods that taste great, to develop new specialty crops for farmers and identify novel preventative and treatment options to combat global health afflictions such as diabetes, cancer and emerging infectious diseases.

Dr. Tao Wu:

Dr. Tao Wu is an associate professor that joined our department in July 2017. After he received his Ph.D. from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2007, he worked as associate professor at the Glycomics and Glycan Bioengineering research center in Nanjing Agricultural University, China. His research focuses on the use of food biopolymers to improve the quality, safety, and nutritional value of foods.

Dr. Curtis Luckett (Center for Sensory Science):

Dr. Curtis Luckett received his Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in 2016. He is an assistant professor and Director of the UT Center for Sensory Science located in the Food Science building. At the UT Center for Sensory Science, we investigate how humans perceive foods and beverages. Our research team comes from many different backgrounds, we come from nutritional science, medical science, and of course food science. The research we do can be broken down into two main groups. The first is our client research. Much of the work we do is done on behalf of food companies. We often help these companies uncover insights regarding their products, helping them match a competitor’s flavor profile or launch the most promising new product. Secondly, we do research aimed at creating a better understanding on the psychological and physical foundations that drive human food perception. This research can lead us down many paths, however our foundational research typically focuses on texture perception and smell.

One of the projects we’ve been working on has been the development of a new test to assess retronasal odor sensitivity. When you perceive flavor, what you are actually perceiving is mainly odors that are transferring to your nose from your mouth. Currently there isn’t a good way to measure if someone is good or bad at picking up odors through the mouth. We have developed a test using small odor containing strips made of pullulan, a carbohydrate produced by a fungus called Aureobasidum pullulans. These biodegradable strips adhere easily to the roof of the mouth using only naturally occurring saliva and are tasteless/odorless. We imbed the odor in these strips which allows us to accurately assess someone’s ability to perceive odors retronasally. This test is important to help us better understand how things like smoking and nasal polyps influence our ability to perceive flavor.

Another project we’ve been working on is centered around how people make the judgement on how many calories a food contains. More specifically, we are comparing how we estimate calories and beverage thickness using different senses. The three senses in this study are hearing, vision, and touch. Interestingly we are very good at assessing thickness by looking at a beverage and observing how it flows. However, we have trouble estimating the how many calories that same beverage may have, even though we tightly associate thickness with caloric density. We also found that we are just at good gauging the thickness of a sample by hearing the sound of it pouring as we are by watching it pour. This study is important for the food community as it continually tries to address obesity and other health issues associated with a high caloric intake.

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