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Erin Franks, Ph.D.

Researcher feature: Erin Franks, Ph.D: New Ventures into Food Science

Jolly Ranchers versus gummy bears: How much force does your jaw need to generate to eat one versus the other? Erin Franks, Ph.D., didn’t foresee a trip to the Netherlands in her future when she came to NEOMED as a postdoctoral researcher to work in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology – but then world of food science came calling. When she and Dr. Vinyard attended the International Conference on Food Oral Processing in Nottingham, United Kingdom in July 2018, they met food scientists who were looking for just their expertise. A collaboration was born that took the NEOMED colleagues to Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“Our collaborators are interested in assessing how foods of different material properties affect chewing behavior and oral physiology. Much of their research is done in association with, and funded by, food industry companies like Unilever, which includes brands like Dove, Hellman’s and Lipton,” Dr. Franks explains.

The Netherlands team reached out to Dr. Vinyard, a professor of anatomy who is well known for his expertise in the field of oral processing. For the overseas visit that followed, Drs. Vinyard and Franks packed up specialized equipment that is used to evaluate jaw-muscle activity and jaw movement during chewing. While at Wageningen University, they trained their new collaborators to use the equipment and how to analyze the resulting data.

Before meeting the NEOMED researchers, the Netherlands team had been using basic methods to assess how different foods affect the chewing process – methods such as video recording to count the number of chews required to process a specific food. The equipment brought along by the NEOMED researchers is much more informative and provides a multitude of data that cannot not be attained from simple video recording.  The contribution of the equipment (and, of course, the expertise of its faculty) will help the overseas team move forward.

Franks explains briefly how it works: “Electrodes are placed on the skin overlying certain chewing muscles to measure the force generated. To measure jaw kinematics (movements) we attach a magnet to the participants’ lower teeth and they wear headgear that contains sensor arrays. In conjunction with the magnet, the sensors trace the movements of the jaw in three dimensions. Of course it’s not the most natural way to eat, but it’s non-invasive and provides numerous parameters that detail the chewing process,” says Dr. Franks.

The next step? The researchers will work together to interpret the findings, which will be published in peer-reviewed journals and relayed to the food companies. Dr. Franks explains, “They work intimately with the food companies to provide them with information that can only be yielded by their research using consumers. They answer key questions such as, ‘How are these foods being processed? And what is their likability?’”

Developing new skill sets

Dr. Franks has a background in anthropology and completed her dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, where she investigated how varying chewing demands — and their resulting forces – impact the way skeletal tissues in the skull grow and adapt. Her work at NEOMED on chewing physiology and oral processing has made this new collaboration a natural next step.

“Getting into food science is a lateral move for me and introduces me to a new skill set—that’s good!’’ says Dr. Franks. “Gaining experience in a different, yet related area is critical as a young researcher.”