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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

Features

Heavenly Halloumi

How food scientists at AUB are making our food tastier, safer, and more nutritious (even halloumi).

Lama Lteif is working with Professor Ammar Olabi to try to figure out what it is that makes halloumi cheese taste so good. Imad Toufeili, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, is baking bread with graduate student Nour El Ouyoun Najm in the new Pilot Plant as part of a wider effort to "formulate staple foods to alleviate mineral deficiencies and improve the health of populations." Pamela Abi Khalil and her adviser, Professor Zeina Kassaify, are focusing on issues related to consumer protection and compliance with international food safety standards. These men and women are just some of the food scientists at AUB concerned with preserving, processing, packaging, and distributing foods that are nutritious, wholesome, affordable, safe, and-delicious.

A quick look at today's headlines is all the proof you need of the important role that food scientists play in our lives. Unfortunately, these headlines all too often alert us to some life-threatening emergency such as the salmonella outbreak in June 2008 traced to raw tomatoes that prompted an FDA warning to consumers in New Mexico and Texas, or the two deaths in Spain in December 2007 and February 2008 attributed to the human variant of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (commonly known as Mad-Cow Disease). A report of a case of H5N1 strain of bird flu in Israel in January 2008 prompted a statement from Lebanon's Ministry of Agriculture urging farmers to remain vigilant. Abi Khalil is working under the supervision of Zeina Kassaify on a project that will-she hopes- ensure that there won't be any similar headlines in Lebanon related specifically to drinking milk.

Abi Khalil explains that dairy farmers in many parts of the world, including Lebanon, routinely use antibiotics to treat sick cattle. Unfortunately whenever antibiotics are used, they leave a residue that can cause allergic reactions in some people. Abi Khalil notes that there are increasing numbers of people having these types of allergic reactions worldwide. The extensive use of antibiotics is also blamed for the fact that some virulent pathogens in milk have developed a resistance to certain antibiotics. "I hope," says Abi Khalil, "that our study will provide information that can be used to develop monitoring systems for proper antibiotic usage among farmers."

Kassaify is involved in several projects to promote stricter food safety regulations in Lebanon and the Middle East-a topic of growing interest in the region. At a symposium in December 2007 organized by the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and the FAFS Alumni Chapter, Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad noted that one of the reasons for the growing interest in this topic is the need to comply with international regulations. Kassaify explains, "many who are working in Lebanon's highly regarded food sector are coming to appreciate that they will need to implement stricter food safety standards in Lebanon to comply with US and EU regulations if they want to grow their export market."

For the last five years, AUB has been involved in the Lebanese Food Quality and Safety Project that the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) established to "enhance the competitiveness of Lebanese industry and its integration into the global market." Under the auspices of this project, Kassaify is working with her colleague Professor Elie Barbour to investigate the tahini and halawa industries to determine the source of salmonella contamination that has been a persistent problem in Lebanon in recent years.

Food scientists such as Imad Toufeili are involved in efforts to manipulate the food we eat to make it more nutritious-something that has been going on for a long time. In the 1930s, for example, the United States introduced a milk fortification program to combat rickets, which is a softening of the bones in

children. The program virtually eliminated rickets in the United States, which was a major public health problem at the time. Although food fortification programs are not common in the region, iodine is routinely added to table salt-as it is in most of the world-to reduce the chance of iodine deficiency in humans, a condition that often leads to thyroid gland problems, specifically endemic goiter.

Toufeili hopes that the work he and his student, Nour El Ouyoun Najm, are doing will help eliminate iron-deficiency anemia, a common type of anemia that affects primarily children under five years of age and women of childbearing age. Najm says that part of what attracted her to this project was that it would "provide policy planners in governments and international organizations, concerned with combating iron-deficiency anemia, with data on the types, levels, and bioavailability of iron compounds that can be used in fortification of Arabic bread and related flat breads."

Although the focus is on developing a type of bread that could be used to address a serious health problem, iron-deficiency anemia, Najm and Toufeili agree that that they are also concerned with how the bread tastes. After all, if people don't eat the iron-fortified bread, they won't benefit at all.

Lama Lteif is also concerned with how a particular food tastes. Working under the supervision of Professor Ammar Olabi, Lteif is trying to understand what it is about halloumi cheese that makes it taste the way it does. Olabi explains that they are hoping to use what they learn to improve the quality of low fat halloumi cheese and to develop a method that could be used to improve the quality of other local low fat cheeses, a crucial step for increasing the consumption of these healthier alternatives. As he explains, "health conscious consumers, especially in industrial countries where high obesity rates are prevalent, are demanding lower fat foods that taste, smell, feel, and look as good as full-fat products."

In her work, Lteif has called on the assistance of AUB students and faculty members who volunteered to help her and Olabi evaluate the halloumi cheese. During the course of six training sessions that she and Olabi conducted for eleven participants, they identified 17 attributes of halloumi cheese such as adhesiveness, moisture release, color, porosity of surface, and hardness. They also had to came up with definitions for these attributes. So, for example, "adhesiveness" is the "degree to which cheese sticks to the surface of the molars." "Moisture release" is defined as "the amount of liquid that flows from the sample after chewing." It may not sound terribly appetizing but it is critically important information that we need in order to understand what it is about halloumi-and other food products-that we enjoy and find appealing.

Given the wide range of issues and the number of career options available to students majoring in food science, it is not surprising to learn that this is an increasingly popular program for both undergraduate and graduate students. Students enrolled in the three-year multidisciplinary program leading to a BS degree in food science and management receive training in food safety and hygiene, food processing and preservation, food service and management, food testing and quality control, food business and marketing, and management of food establishments. In addition to being well grounded in science, students majoring in food science also take business courses and are required to complete an eight-week internship that exposes them to the issues that are important in local industries. Students such as Abi Khalil, Najim, and Lteif who are enrolled in the master's program in food technology have the opportunity to research a wide range of issues including food processing, sensory and food analysis, food microbiology, and food safety.

"Although we are a small program at AUB," says Toufeili, "we are active in a number of areas: researching new products, looking for ways to enhance existing products to make them more nutritious, and working to enhance the safety of the foods that we consume locally-and that we produce for export markets."