Building New Markets

SPG-funded research explores how pulses can help create a healthier world

One of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers' main priorities is increasing demand for pulse crops.

This is a timely goal, says Dr. Lisette Mascarenhas, Director of Research and Development, as the global interest in pulses is currently on the rise.

"More and more people are looking at pulses with new eyes, whether for socioeconomic, health, or environmental reasons," she says.

According to a report released last year by Lux Research, the global demand for plant-based proteins is set to grow at a rapid pace in coming years, with total protein demand doubling by 2054, to 943.5 million tonnes.

Mascarenhas says that SPG-funded research is preparing us to meet that demand, through a couple of ways.

The first is by exploring the best ways for consumers to consume pulses. The second is by increasing our knowledge around pulse processing and utilization in food, animal feed, and industrial applications.

"This could be post-production, end-use processing research into how to incorporate pulses into as many products as possible," she says.

This is an especially important area right now, according to Mascarenhas, as more and more commercial food companies are looking for novel ways to make their products healthier and more marketable to a consumer base that is increasingly concerned with eating healthier food products. Pulses are a great fit for this market as they hit many of the health trends today - including that they are high in protein and fibre, and more.

"Companies are interested in looking at how to best complement certain traditional ingredients with pulse ingredients to improve the nutritional profile. For example, companies want to make breads or baked foods containing pulses so that they can use the marketing message that it is higher in protein and fibre, and therefore good for you."

The same trend is ongoing in the pet food market as well, she says, although it is also facing the challenge of trying to find the right balance of pulses to include to make the end product more nutritious, without affecting the taste to a point wtlere it is less appealing to pets.

The second way that SPG is preparing the industry to meet the growing market demand is by supporting health research, which is required to support marketing and health claims for pulses.

"We are moving in the right direction in terms of health research but we are not there yet." Mascarenhas says."There is still confusion in terms of what forms of pulses you need to consume, and how much for desired outcomes."

"Right now, we are trying to put all the pieces together to see what the gaps are that we need to fill."

SPG is currently funding a variety of research projects that meet the two objectives mentioned above. Here is a look at some of the exciting areas being explored.

Food Ingredients

Pulses offer many benefits as food ingredients, but their taste can often be an obstacle.

One project is currently looking at fixing this, by modifying the production process for protein isolates from peas, lentils, and faba beans to improve the flavour profiles.

Dr. Michael  Nickerson, Associate Professor in the University of Saskatchewan's (U of S) Food and Bioproduct Sciences Department, is leading this research.

"As many of us know, flavour compounds present in pulse ingredients create significant challenges for product developers," he says. "We are looking to further our commercial-scale wet process for producing pulse protein isolates. In particular, looking at industrial processing strategies for removing flavour compounds from pulse fractions to produce a blander final protein ingredient."

This research is important right now,as food companies are very interested in including pulses in their products for a number of reasons, one of which is that they do not have to be labelled as allergens on product labels.

"Consumers want cleaner labels, meaning they want to understand the ingredients within the product, and that the product has no allergen warning," Nickerson says.

One of the more commonly used protein ingredients right now is soya, according to Nickerson, but food manufacturers are looking for alternatives.

Overall, this research will help grow demand for Saskatchewan-grown pulses, Nickerson says.

"Developing pulse protein isolates with speciality functionality will help diversify the vegetable protein ingredient market, creating growth opportunities for secondary processing in the province."

SPG is also funding research through the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) that aims to develop a database of information on how pulses can best be used as ingredients in baked goods, to improve the health and nutrition ofthe final products. This research is set to wrap up in 2019. Other currently funded research is exploring how pulses may be included as ingredients for meat products in order to improve their nutrition, quality, and value.

Novel Uses

SPG is focused on finding new and improved uses for pulse crops, in order to increase global demand for the crops.

Nickerson is leading one such project that is exploring the use of pulses in a non-typical context. This research explores using pulses to microencapsulate fatty acids in food products.

"Microencapsulation is a technology that entraps or packages sensitive core materials, such as omega-3 fatty acid rich oils from flax or fish," Nickerson says.

"This package is made of protein, which in our case is primarily comprised of lentil protein isolate, along with some other ingredients. Its function is basically to inhibit oxygen from reacting with the oil to cause oxidation, and to allow the ingredient to be easily dispersed within an aqueous food product."

Today, the better performing capsules are made from animal-based proteins but manufacturers are looking for alternatives, says Nickerson. Pulses present a great alternative, as they cost less, are more nutritious, and are non-allergenic.

Also helping drive the demand for alternatives to animal-based protein is the fact that consumers are still leery of animal-derived proteins because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Nickerson has been working on developing this technology for a decade now. Two of his previous projects in this area were focused on designing the technology. This current project will actually produce the microcapsules and test them in dairy animal feed trials.

"Currently, we are scaling up our process at POS BioSciences, and are aiming to move towards carrying out a dairy-feeding tria lto show proof of concept of our technology," he says. "If successful, the higher quality omega-3 rich fluid milk could be used to produce other omega-3 rich products, such as cheeses and yogurts."

The next step will be to find a company to partner with to scale up the product and introduce it into the marketplace.

The project will officially wrap up in 2019 and Nickerson hopes that once everything is complete, the research will launch demand for Saskatchewan-grown pulse ingredients.

Pet Food

We know that pulses are healthy for humans, but one researcher has been working to prove that they are also healthy for our pets.

Dr.Lynn Weber, a Researcher and Professor in the U of S Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences, has already proved through previous SPG-funded research that including pulse starches in both cat and dog food had a positive effect on the health of the animals, through improved weight control and lowered rates of diabetes.

But the problem she discovered was that the cats involved in the study did not care for the taste of the pulse-based pet foods.

"You could leave them an overflowing bowl of food and they would refuse to eat it for up to five days," she laughs. "That is how much they hated it."

This is why her current research aims to determine if they can improve the taste of the pet food, while at the same time increasing the nutrition. Weber believes that by fermenting the pulse starches before they are used as ingredients, she can achieve both these goals.

The fermentation process, which involves adding nitrogen and yeast to the pulse starch, will yield a more complete, more nutritious protein source, she says.

"Plant proteins are not as complete nutritionally. They are lacking a couple of important amino acids compared to animal protein," she says. "The great thing about yeast is that it makes the whole mixture of amino acids you need, so it makes a complete protein."

Yeast is also known to have a positive prebiotic effect, she says.

"It promotes the growth of good microbes in the gut and/or does something to improve gut health - we do not know exactly how, but it reduces gut inflammation and makes good gut bacteria grow."

Weber expects that the effect on gut health will be especially beneficial to the pets, just as it is believed to be in humans.

"We know from human health it is important to have a healthy gut," she says.

The research is still in early stages of developing the fermented pea starch, but the next steps will involve actually testing the food with cats and dogs, to see if they show a preference for the food containing fermented ingredients. They will also test the health effects of the food on the pets.

The research will wrap up in 2019 and will yield information that will be useful for pet food manufacturers looking to make healthier products.

Human Health Outcomes

There are some exciting opportunities for pea hull fibre on the horizon in North America and Dr. Wendy Dahl, a Researcher and Associate Professor at the University of Florida, is currently exploring them.

This is a great time to be bringing attention to this source of fibre, Dahl says, as new United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations are about to restrict most of the sources of soluble fibres that are currently being used in food products.

Pea hull fibre is already considered a dietary fibre by the FDA, so it will not be affected by these regulations, according to Dahl.

"This presents a huge advantage over most of the isolated fibres that have dominated the U.S. market for years."

Another major opportunity for pea hull fibre is that it is ideal for partial replacement for wheat flour, because of its characteristics and water-holding capacity.

"It works phenomenally well in baked products like muffins and bread, and those are foods that really need fibre fortification," Dahl says.

Another advantage of pea hull fibre is its ability to act as a laxative and therefore treat people who suffer from constipation more effectively than many of the isolated fibres that are currently on the market.

This is the area of focus for Dahl's current research, which involves testing the health effects of pea hull fibre on three primary target groups.

The first group is healthy older adults, who tend to have more gastrointestinal tract and constipation issues, particularly women. 

The second group is children with constipation issues. Because obese children tend to have more issues with constipation, the study will look at testing whether the negative effects of constipation cause overeating in these children, or if it is the other way around. Previous research led by Dahl also suggested that pea hull fibre was able to suppress food intake in overweight children. Therefore, it will be interesting and important to determine the overall role that pea hull fibre could play in treating childhood obesity.

The third target group for this research is people who suffer from chronic disease linked to lack of fibre and constipation.

"When things stay in our colon for long periods of time, inflammatory substances are produced by bacteria in the colon," Dahl says. "Those are then absorbed  in the body and contribute to cardiovascular disease, loss of kidney function, and other risks."

The patients in this portion of the study have chronic kidney disease, and have high levels of these inflammatory substances in their bodies. Dahl believes that pea hull fibre will help to decrease the amount of those substances and improve their overall health.

These studies will officially wrap up next spring, at which time Dahl expects to have some good news about how pea hull fibre can help people who are affected by constipation and related issues. These results will be widely shared through extension activities, she says.

Relatedly, Dahl is also currently working on developing more practical guidelines around how to increase the consumption of pea hull fibre amongst long-term care residents. This type of information is important to include alongside research outcomes, to ensure that findings can be put into practice, she says.

"With our study on kidney disease patients, if this works well - and we already have some evidence that it will - fibre-fortified foods would be ideal for them," she says. "l want to be able to communicate that to health professionals so they know there are options for these individuals to use pea hull fibre to help slow the progression of the disease and prevent complications."