A UMass Professor Is Trying to Make Junk Food Healthier

He was given a grant to reduce saturated fat content in snacks such as crackers, cookies, and granola bars.

A professor from UMass Amherst wants to make your favorite guilty pleasures a little less guilty.

Eric Decker, a food scientist at UMass, was given a three-year, $470,000 grant to find ways to improve the nutrition of common foods high in saturated fat, such as crackers, cookies, and granola bars. Packaged snack foods are low in moisture, so saturated fat is often an integral part of their texture; as such, making their recipes healthier can be challenging.

Though fat in general is slowly gaining acceptance in nutrition science, saturated fat is still considered something to avoid. A September 2015 Harvard School of Public Health study found that cutting saturated fat intake lowers the risk of developing heart disease, and the latest version of the federal dietary guidelines specifically suggests avoiding saturated fat.

“Improving the nutritional profiles of these products by substituting their saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids could have an important, positive impact on consumer health,” Decker said in a statement. “However, it’s a challenge because fats high in saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and these solid fats play an important role in the texture of low-moisture foods.”

Decker and his team will experiment with different fat, antioxidant, and processing formulations for crackers, hopefully landing on one that that is healthier, high-quality, and won’t spoil easily. Eventually, the team aims to develop a strategy that food companies of all sizes can use to improve health without sacrificing product standards, and that will cut down on food waste.

If he’s successful, he’ll be a hero to snack addicts everywhere.