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Novel Applications for Zein Nanoparticles

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posted on 18.12.2018 by Christopher J. Cheng
Zein is major nitrogen storage protein that accounts for nearly half of the protein content of the corn grain. As a byproduct of starch and ethanol processing, it is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and soluble in up to 70% ethanol. Historically, zein has been used for films and coatings. However, usage of the corn protein has diminished in recent years. New advances in food nanotechnology has renewed interest in zein. By forming the protein into stable nanoparticles capable of being dispersed in aqueous solution, zein can be used in many applications ranging from improving stability and digestion of functional ingredients or active biodegradable packaging. Developing novel applications for this protein would then add value to a waste product during the processing of corn.

The formation of hydrophobic zein nanoparticles (ZNPs) would allow for easier dispersion in aqueous systems without further modification to increase hydrophilicity. However, their dispersibility and subsequent stability in aqueous systems is important for its functionality in food. Addition of sufficient ι-carrageenan (ι-CGN) prevented aggregation in the pH range of 5.25 to 6.75 and limited aggregation at pH 7.0. Enhanced stability was attributed to the adhesion of ι-CGN to the nanoparticle surface, as the ZNPs surface charge became significantly negative with introduction of ι-CGN. These particles remained stable for up to 30 days with significantly lower turbidity and greater resistance to gravitational separation when compared to ZNPs alone.

Lutein was encapsulated in zein nanoparticles, and the bioaccessibility was determined by quantifying lutein content after exposure to in vitro gastric and intestinal conditions. It was found that ZNPs provided a protective environment for lutein in aqueous dispersions and would release the carotenoid into the small intestine by rapid breakdown of ZNP structure during intestinal digestion. However, the process or residual components must have limited uptake of lutein into mixed micelles. ZNPs can be a promising encapsulating agent to improve the digestive stability of lutein.

Composite films composed of methylcellulose (MC) and zein nanoparticles (ZNPs) were prepared as a potential biodegradable alternative for synthetic packaging. The effects of ZNP aggregation on mechanical and moisture barrier properties as affected by drying temperature, pH, and stabilizers were tested. The phase separation of composite films was determined to be detrimental to both its mechanical and moisture barrier properties. The drying temperature, pH, and composition of the solvent casting solution all affected the distribution of ZNPs dispersed in MC films. Drying films at 23°C or setting the pH to 6.5 resulted in ZNP aggregation and weaker, brittle films that were poor moisture barriers. The presence of CGN was able to provide stability to ZNPs at both pH 4 and 6.5, thus improving its mechanical and moisture barrier properties.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Food Science

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Owen Jones

Additional Committee Member 2

Bruce Hamaker

Additional Committee Member 3

Mario Ferruzzi

Additional Committee Member 4

Brian Degner

Additional Committee Member 5

Jen-Yi Huang



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