U of A researchers work closely with industry to study plant proteins

U of A researchers work closely with industry to study plant proteins

Prof. Lingyun Chen especially excited about ways plant-based proteins can be used to improve health

By Kathy Kerr

Lingyun Chen came to the University of Alberta in 2007 to do protein research on barley and oats.

Prof. Chen, now a Canada research chair in plant protein, structure function and nutraceutical delivery, didn’t know then that the university’s plant-protein research would expand and grow into ever-changing areas.

Lingyun Chen, University of Alberta“In the last five years plant protein has become a hot topic and also our expertise has expanded from barley and oat protein to pulse protein — that’s one of the hotter topics — peas, lentils and faba beans.”

U of A researchers in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) are looking into using canola protein for human consumption, how plant proteins can replicate the functions and structure of meat proteins, and ways to use plants for packaging material and industrial filters.

Chen is particularly excited about current research on how plant proteins can be used to improve health.

“There’s some interesting projects we’re doing with the Oat Growers Association and other industry partners trying to make oat milk products with increased protein content and beta glucan content. We recently evaluated those oat drinks with cancer patients with the idea of whether we can make health drinks for targeted populations.”

Studies indicate cancer patients like the flavour of the drinks and they can be fortified with vitamins and other components for nutritional enhancement, says Chen.

“It might be interesting to see in the future how these high-protein and high-fibre enhanced drinks can be used to target populations with diabetes or to reduce blood cholesterol.”

In the wider context, the researchers collaborate with the plant-protein sector on a continuum from human health to food to agriculture, says Stanford Blade, dean of the ALES faculty.

Blade says his first position as a researcher in 1995 was as a field pea breeder. Farmers were seeing an opportunity for pulses then, he said. But the big turnaround in interest in plant proteins came at about the time he became the dean in 2014.

The convergence of interest in carbon emissions, sustainability, health and animal welfare, and the resulting interest from retail food companies, made the difference, he says.

The faculty works very closely with industry partners, says Blade, bringing expertise, facilities, great principal investigators and a strong graduate student base to the collaboration.

“When we talk about commercialization and the way we handle intellectual property, our faculty, per faculty member, ranks right up there with every other faculty on campus … for the kind of commercial opportunities that do come from our intellectual property,” says Blade.

The university contributes to the plant-protein sector from crop research to processing to product research and nutrition.

“We’ve just hired, with the support of a number of our partner agencies here in Alberta — primarily the crop commissions — people that are doing work in agricultural entomology, in cropping systems, in relationships between plants and soil and microbes. All of that fits with legumes and pulses on that growing side,” says Blade.

On the novel food product side, undergrad students worked with Alberta Pulse Growers in creating pulse-based gelatos. Blade adds one of the newest areas of interest is the use of big data in agriculture.

The university doesn’t often produce specific products for its industry partners, Chen says.

“We generate knowledge for them to improve their technologies.”

Ideally, an industry partner has some research capacity of its own and Chen’s team can fill in a gap.

One example of the university/industry collaboration work Chen has been doing is on canola protein. Calgary-firm Botaneco has funding from Protein Industries Canada to develop protein for human consumption. Canola meal is currently just used for animal feed, but it has much wider potential.

Canola | Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta PPAA“Canola proteins … have balanced amino acids and they have good digestibility,” says Chen. “The processing makes them not suitable for human consumption.”

But opportunities are opening up as processing methods change, she says.

Chen says U of A’s particular strength in plant-protein research is in linking protein structure with functionalities.

“For instance, different crops like pulses and oats — they have different protein composition, different structures — so they can be used different ways. And even pulses like peas, lentils and faba beans, they are not the same.”

Researchers study how proteins from different crops are different and how different processing methods make a difference in those protein structures, says Chen.

As global demand rises for plant-based alternatives of dairy, meat and egg products, that research into protein structures is crucial.

Chen says the buzz about plant proteins is attracting more student interest in her field of research. The U of A has four faculty members working in plant and animal proteins. She is the only one dedicated to plant protein, but “recently, with more interest, I see my colleagues coming to the plant-protein space.”

This story is part of a series on post-secondary institutions in Alberta:

Kathy Kerr is a freelance writer and editor

Posted Sept. 17, 2020

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