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Scientists develop visual tool to help people group foods based on their levels of processing

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Scientists develop visual tool to help people group foods based on their levels of processing


Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC scientists studying ultra-processed foods have created a new tool for assessing the rewarding and reinforcing properties of foods that make up 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States. The foods have been linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes.

The research, which was published in April in the journal Appetite, provides a collection of carefully curated images of minimally processed and ultra-processed foods matched on 26 characteristics, including macronutrients, sodium, dietary fiber, calories, price, and visual characteristics such as a color and portion size.

The work was based on the NOVA classification system — “nova” means new in Portuguese — which groups foods into four categories based on their level of processing. Nutrition researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil developed the scale while studying the country’s sharp increase in obesity rates.

The scale has its detractors.

“A major criticism of the NOVA scale is that it’s difficult to use or that foods are classified differently by different people,” said Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, corresponding author and assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “We found that people with education in nutrition generally agreed on the food classifications, providing some data that it might not be a valid criticism.”

What they did

The NOVA system assigns food to four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, such as fresh fruit, legumes, or plain yogurt; processed culinary ingredients, such as cooking oils, butter, and salt; processed foods, which combine the two above through simple methods suc as cheese, canned vegetables, or freshly baked bread; and ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, flavored yogurt, processed meat, and most packaged breads, made through industrial processing and additives rarely found in a home pantry.

To develop the picture set, a team of psychologists, neuroscientists, and registered dietitians selected foods to represent either minimally processed or ultra-processed foods.

The foods were prepared in a lab, visually represented through professional photography, and controlled for consistency. Researchers also gathered price, food weights, and nutritional information — calories, macronutrients, sodium, and dietary fiber — for the food in each image.

Study participants rated images across a range of qualities to generate a final set of 28 pictures matched across 26 characteristics. To objectively measure NOVA classification, researchers recruited 67 nutrition professionals and asked them to classify the foods as minimally or ultra-processed.

“With this food picture set we can start to infer that any differences between food pictures is due to the degree of food processing, and not all these other factors that we know are potentially impactful,” said Zach Hutelin, the study’s lead author and a Fralin Biomedical Research Institute-based graduate student in the translational biology, medicine and health Ph.D. program.

Why this matters

Ultra-processed foods are linked with increased risk of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. They represent more than half of calories consumed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom and have been identified as a global threat to public health.

“There is very little experimental research on ultra-processed foods, and part of what’s been holding us back is better tools for measuring and assessing their effects,” said DiFeliceantonio, who is also associate director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research. “The more tools we can provide, the more we can learn.”

The Virginia Tech team is making the pictures and associated data accessible through the Virginia Tech Data Repository of the Virginia Tech University Libraries. This will allow scientists to test hypotheses in behavioral economic and neuroimaging studies.

In the DiFeliceantonio lab, the photos are being used with functional MRI to reveal associated brain activity, with the images isolating the effects of food processing from other characteristics.

The study was funded by a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, and a grant from the Seale Innovation Fund, which supports innovative pilot research projects at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. DiFeliceantonio received a grant from the fund to investigate metabolic, neural, and behavioral data to better understand how our brains process nutrient availability and food preference.



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Are mixed emotions real? New research says yes

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Are mixed emotions real? New research says yes


In Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out 2, complex feelings like envy and embarrassment join the cast of characters. Nostalgia, however, is hurried out the door to cries of “too early!” when she appears.

If animators wish to give nostalgia more consideration in a future film, new data from researchers at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences could guide them in determining how to animate this sort of “mixed emotion.”

What’s new: In a recent study, the USC Dornsife neuroscientists found that brains display distinct neural activity when experiencing emotions such as bittersweetness.

  • The advance could help solve a longstanding scientific debate: whether “mixed emotions” arise from unique activity in the brain, or if we’re just flip-flopping back and forth between positive and negative feelings.

Why it matters: Mixed emotions are a common experience, but they’ve been understudied scientifically for several reasons.

  • Emotions are often thought to exist only on a spectrum from negative to positive.
  • It’s easier to study one feeling at a time.

In his words: “It’s hard to evoke these complex emotions in a realistic way inside the lab,” says Jonas Kaplan, associate professor (research) of psychology and co-author of the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in April.

Key findings:

  • Mixed feelings elicited unique neural activity in the amygdala and nucleus accumbens areas of the brain.
  • This activity was different than the brain activity seen when a subject reported a purely positive or negative emotion.

What else? The researchers could predict when someone was going to shift emotions.

  • Particular regions of the brain, like the insular cortex, displayed significant changes as subjects reported an emotional transition.

“Not only did we find brain activity that was correlated with mixed emotions, but we found that it held steady over time,” says Anthony Vaccaro, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroendocrinology of Social Ties Lab at USC Dornsife. Vaccaro recently completed his PhD in psychology at USC Dornsife. “You’re not ping-ponging between negative and positive. It’s a very unique, mixed emotion over a long period.”

Graphs show consistent brain activity during positive, negative and mixed emotions, demonstrating that mixed emotions are distinct from other feelings. (Image: Jonas Kaplan.)

How they did it: As study subjects watched a poignant animated short film, researchers monitored their brain activity using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.· The researchers chose One Small Step by TAIKO Studios for its ability to evoke simultaneous happy and sad feelings. · After the first viewing, participants rewatched the video without MRI and indicated when they experienced positive, negative or mixed emotions. The researchers then compared these reports with the MRI imaging results.

Opportunity: The study lays out practical groundwork for future scientific research into this understudied phenomenon, research that Kaplan says would also be beneficial for understanding human psychology.

  • “There’s a certain sophistication that’s required to sit with a mixed emotion and to allow yourself to feel positive and negative at the same time. Looking into that more, exploring the benefits of being able to accept positive and negativity at the same time within yourself, is something we think is worth study,” he says.

What’s next: Kaplan and Vaccaro will next look at how emotional reactions fluctuate in group settings, such as watching a movie together in a cinema.



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Paleontology: New fossil fish genus discovered

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Paleontology: New fossil fish genus discovered


Gobies or Gobioidei are one of the most species-rich groups of marine and freshwater fish in Europe. Spending most of their lives on the bottom of shallow waterbodies, they make substantial contributions to the functioning of many ecosystems. With the identification of a new genus of a fossil freshwater goby, students of the international master program ‘Geobiology and Paleobiology’ at LMU and paleontologist Bettina Reichenbacher, professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU, have made a discovery that provides critical insights into the evolutionary history of these fish.

Measuring up to 34 mm, the small fish of the new genus †Simpsonigobius were discovered in 18-million-year-old rocks in Turkey and are marked by a distinct combination of morphological features, including otoliths (hearing stones) with a unique shape.

Modern research techniques elucidate position in family tree

To determine the relationships of †Simpsonigobius within the gobioid phylogenetic tree, the researchers utilized a “total-evidence” phylogenetic dataset, which they enhanced in order to combine a total of 48 morphological characters and genetic data from five genes for 48 living and 10 fossil species. In addition, the team employed “tip-dating” for fossil gobioid species for the first time. This is a phylogenetic method in which the age of the fossils (= tips) included in the phylogenetic tree is used to infer the timing of the evolutionary history of the entire group.

The results show that the new genus is the oldest skeleton-based member of the family Oxudercidae — which is classified among the “modern” gobies (families Gobiidae and Oxudercidae) — and the oldest freshwater goby within this modern group. The tip-dating analysis estimated the emergence of the Gobiidae at 34.1 million years ago and that of the Oxudercidae at 34.8 million years ago, which is consistent with previous dating studies using other methods. Moreover, stochastic habitat mapping, in which the researchers incorporated fossil gobies for the first time, revealed that the gobies probably possessed broad salinity tolerance at the beginning of their evolutionary history, which challenges previous assumptions.

“The discovery of †Simpsonigobius not only adds a new genus to the Gobioidei, but also provides vital clues about the evolutionary timeline and habitat adaptations of these diverse fishes. Our research highlights the importance of analyzing fossil records using modern methods to achieve a more accurate picture of evolutionary processes,” says Reichenbacher. First author Moritz Dirnberger, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Montpellier, adds: “The findings are expected to pave the way for further studies on gobioid evolution and the role of environmental factors in shaping their diversity.”



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Ancient ocean slowdown warns of future climate chaos

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Ancient ocean slowdown warns of future climate chaos


When it comes to the ocean’s response to global warming, we’re not in entirely uncharted waters. A UC Riverside study shows that episodes of extreme heat in Earth’s past caused the exchange of waters from the surface to the deep ocean to decline.

This system has been described as the “global conveyer belt,” because it redistributes heat around the globe through the movement of the ocean waters, making large portions of the planet habitable.

Using tiny, fossilized shells recovered from ancient deep-sea sediments, the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates how the conveyor belt responded around 50 million years ago. At that time, Earth’s climate resembled conditions predicted by the end of this century, if significant action is not taken to reduce carbon emissions.

Oceans play a crucial role in regulating Earth’s climate. They move warm water from the equator toward the north and south poles, balancing the planet’s temperatures. Without this circulation system, the tropics would be much hotter and the poles much colder. Changes in this system are linked to significant and abrupt climate change.

Furthermore, the oceans serve a critical role in removing anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “The oceans are by far the largest standing pool of carbon on Earth’s surface today,” said Sandra Kirtland Turner, vice-chair of UCR’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and first author of the study.

“Today, the oceans contain nearly 40,000 billion tons of carbon — more than 40 times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Oceans also take up about a quarter of anthropogenic CO2 emissions,” Kirtland Turner said. “If ocean circulation slows, absorption of carbon into the ocean may also slow, amplifying the amount of CO2 that stays in the atmosphere.”

Previous studies have measured changes in ocean circulation in Earth’s more recent geologic past, such as coming out of the last ice age; however, those do not approximate the levels of atmospheric CO2 or warming happening to the planet today. Other studies provide the first evidence that deep ocean circulation, particularly in the North Atlantic, is already starting to slow.

To better predict how ocean circulation responds to greenhouse gas-driven global warming, the research team looked to the early Eocene epoch, between roughly 49 and 53 million years ago. Earth then was much warmer than today, and that high-heat baseline was punctuated by spikes in CO2 and temperature called hyperthermals.

During that period, the deep ocean was up to 12 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today. During the hyperthermals, the oceans warmed an additional 3 degrees Celsius.

“Though the exact cause of the hyperthermal events is debated, and they occurred long before the existence of humans, these hyperthermals are the best analogs we have for future climate change,” Kirtland Turner said.

By analyzing tiny fossil shells from different sea floor locations around the globe, the researchers reconstructed patterns of deep ocean circulation during these hyperthermal events. The shells are from microorganisms called foraminifera, which can be found living throughout the world’s oceans, both on the surface and on the sea floor. They are about the size of a period at the end of a sentence.

“As the creatures are building their shells, they incorporate elements from the oceans, and we can measure the differences in the chemistry of these shells to broadly reconstruct information about ancient ocean temperatures and circulation patterns,” Kirtland Turner said.

The shells themselves are made of calcium carbonate. Oxygen isotopes in the calcium carbonate are indicators of temperatures in the water the organisms grew in, and the amount of ice on the planet at the time.

The researchers also examined carbon isotopes in the shells, which reflect the age of the water where the shells were collected, or how long water has been isolated from the ocean surface. In this way, they can reconstruct patterns of deep ocean water movement.

Foraminifera can’t photosynthesize, but their shells indicate the impact of photosynthesis of other organisms nearby, like phytoplankton. “Photosynthesis occurs in the surface ocean only, so water that has recently been at the surface has a carbon-13 rich signal that is reflected in the shells when that water sinks to the deep ocean,” Kirtland Turner said.

“Conversely, water that has been isolated from the surface for a long time has built up relatively more carbon-12 as the remains of photosynthetic organisms sink and decay. So, older water has relatively more carbon-12 compared to ‘young’ water.”

Scientists often make predictions about ocean circulation today using computer climate models. They use these models to answer the question: ‘how is the ocean going to change as the planet keeps warming?’ This team similarly used models to simulate the ancient ocean’s response to warming. They then used the foraminifera shell analysis to help test results from their climate models.

During the Eocene, there were about 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which contributed to that era’s high temperatures. Today, the atmosphere holds about 425 ppm.

However, humans emit nearly 37 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year; if these emission levels continue, similar conditions to the Early Eocene could occur by the end of this century.

Therefore, Kirtland Turner argues it is imperative to make every effort to reduce emissions.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing situation,” she said. “Every incremental bit of change is important when it comes to carbon emissions. Even small reductions of CO2 correlate to less impacts, less loss of life, and less change to the natural world.”



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