Low-fat fried chicken may seem like a contradiction in terms, but not to Stephen Kelleher. On a recent summer morning, he hovered over a whirling assembly line as a waterfall of gray liquid cascaded over slabs of breaded chicken. Then the magic began.

During the bath in the liquid solution, which consisted of water and protein molecules extracted from a slurry of chicken or fish tissue, a thin, imperceptible shield formed around the meat. When the chicken was submerged in oil, the coating blocked fat from being absorbed from the fryer.



Voilà! The chicken contained 50 percent less fat than a typical piece of fried chicken.



Just another day in the strange world of food scientists. Mr. Kelleher, the founder of Proteus Industries in Gloucester, Mass., is one of many chemists who work, often in secret, in a little-understood part of the $550 billion processed-food industry. These are the people who ultimately put food together, and their mission is critical: developing foods that let consumers have their cake and eat it, too.



With two-thirds of Americans considered overweight and yet many professing a desire to eat healthier, every major food producer and food-ingredient company has ordered its scientists to find the holy grail: products that either have less bad stuff – fat, white flour, sugar and salt – or more good stuff like whole grains, fiber and fish oil.



Some of these food additives are natural and some are not. But even those that are natural hardly evoke images of a country harvest. Fat-repellent coatings, after all, do not grow on trees.



Coming soon to your grocery store, for example, could be salty corn chips cooked in oil but that are marketed as healthy because the addition of chemically modified starches make them high in fiber. Labeled simply as “modified cornstarch,” this additive cannot be broken down until it reaches the colon, much like the natural fiber found in fruit and vegetables. Also coming soon: bread containing microscopic capsules of fish oil, enabling food companies to contend that the bread is “heart-healthy” because of the cholesterol and triglyceride-lowering omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.



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