A new kind of super food: How shape-shifting ingredients could help fight obesity

Obesity has turned into an epidemic that is costing millions a year in healthcare and yet it could be entirely preventable with the right diet – if only it wasn’t so difficult to cut down on the various treats we snack on during the day.

The UK’s chief medical officer has warned in a new report that obesity is increasingly regarded as the norm in the country, meaning millions of overweight people may be unaware of, or in denial about, the health risks they’re living with.

Chemical engineers at the University of Birmingham are tackling one of the main reasons why we pile on those extra pounds: excessive snacking in between meals.

The scientists have come up with an edible gel that changes the structure of food inside the stomach and could trick the brain into feeling full for longer.

They believe the gel could become an ingredient in everyday foods, for example the ubiquitous breakfast staple porridge.


The research focuses on liquid and soft textured foods which form a large part of the modern diet. Such foods tend to be high in fat and sugars but are digested quickly, causing fluctuations in blood glucose levels and offering limited satiety.

The ability to restructure liquid and soft foods into thicker textures once they have been ingested could help slow down energy release and leave the consumer more satisfied by what they eat and less inclined to continue snacking.

Chemical engineer Jennifer Bradbeer, along with colleagues at the University of Birmingham, showed it’s possible to manipulate food once inside the stomach.

The edible gel that does the trick is extracted from two biopolymers, low acyl and high acyl gellan gum, which are derived mainly from natural sources such as seaweed, agar, starch, and citrus peel and are already used in food production to influence texture or viscosity.

“The gel works by becoming more solid when it hits an acidic stomach-like environment. It breaks down slowly, giving your brain a chance to catch on that your stomach is full,” explains Bradbeer.

Her research is based on the idea that sticking with three square meals a day – as opposed to snacking throughout – could be a route to overcoming obesity.

“If the urge to snack between meals can be reduced or eliminated using this approach, then the calorie intake, especially in the form of high fat or sugar products, can be reduced,” she says.

The idea of eating gellan gum certainly doesn’t sound very appealing, but the good news is such self-structuring gels could be delivered in foods such as porridge, soups, energy drinks and meal replacement drinks.

“We have some promising data involving human volunteers consuming self-structuring beverages.”

At this stage the gel doesn’t provide a complete solution as no energy is released to the body to complement the sensation of satiety.

The researchers are currently looking at ways to encapsulate sugars or starches that can be slowly released and digested to provide a low level of nutrition, so the food keeps both the brain and the body satisfied.

A further step is to test the gel on volunteers and translate the research into a marketable product.

“In the context of energy release, we have some promising data involving human volunteers consuming self-structuring beverages with glucose and measuring blood glucose release through the collection of blood samples,” Bradbeer explains.

It isn’t clear yet how soon the shape-shifting gel will be available as an addition to our porridge or soup. In the meantime we’ll just have to do our best to resist those snacks.

Frozen for tomorrow: an insight into the world of ‘life-extending’ cryonic freezing

Cryonics – the practice of freezing people after death in the hope that technology will advance sufficiently to rejuvenate them in the future – is a technology immersed in science fiction.

It is easy to forget that around the world there are several thousand people frozen in liquid nitrogen, who took the decision in the hope that one day they will be awoken. But a documentary film recently posted online has cast a light on the process, by going inside one of the largest cryonic organisations in the world.

The film, We Will Live Again, is made by Brooklyn Underground Films and focuses on the Cryonics Institute, where the bodies of almost 100 people are stored ready for reanimation once technology makes it possible.

Rather than being sensationalist or extreme, the filmmakers have portrayed cryonics in a sensitive and personal way, focusing heavily on then president and CEO of the Cryonics Institute, Ben Best.

“Cryonics is another medical procedure as far as I’m concerned. We keep the person in storage as long as necessary,” said Best.

Best, along with many others, believes that the technology to safely unfreeze and restore people back to healthy life will be here by the end of the century.

“I’m thinking that within 50 – 100 years people will start being recovered from this process,” he explained. “People will be rejuvenated to a youthful condition and any of the disease they have cured.”

Great care is taken to ensure that the bodies are frozen and stored in a way that gives them the best chance of living again – the Cryonics Institute website is full of advice for would-be cyronees, funeral directors involved in the preparation and transport of bodies to the institute and other professionals involved in the field.

Autopsies, for example are a clear no-no and the organisation provides information and advice on dealing with this.

Even cryonics enthusiasts are very clear that this is based largely on hope; cryonics is ultimately a technology that banks on scientific innovations that do not yet exist, and enthusiast sites and discussion groups show a clear awareness of this fact.


The technology does have its detractors, though, with some scientists feeling there are a range of issues that will make bringing unfrozen people back from the dead impossible. These include what will happen to memories and the brain in a body this old – it may be that memories can’t be stored this long – and the possibility of damage to cells and organs due to the freezing process, although the freezing process used is designed to keep this to a minimum.

Less discussed is the potential impact on humanity cryonics could have. Although the numbers of people involved are still very small, the price for freezing is within reach of an increasing number of people – the cheapest option offered by the Cryonics Institute is $28,000 – and life insurers are increasingly seeing support for cryonics as a lucrative revenue stream.

If cryonics were to be achieved and large numbers of people made use of it, this could be a serious societal problem; by 2100 the world is predicted to have a population of 11 billion, and more people wouldn’t exactly be a welcome strain on precious resources.

There is also the question of coping with living in a time where everyone you know is dead; in Futurama, Fry was very happy to embrace his new, accidentally acquired life, but cryonees will have planned and imagined how life will be when they wake up.

What if the future doesn’t meet their expectations?