On the hunt for new ways to use pulse starch

Yongfeng Ai is the lead researcher on a University of Saskatchewan project that looks for novel uses for pulse starches. | Gord Waldner photo

Pulse crops grown in Saskatchewan, including peas, fababeans, chickpeas and lentils, have long been recognized as a safe and nutritious food source.

Now, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are looking at novel uses for pulse starches that could result in the creation of new environmentally friendly products such as bioplastics, biofilms and plant-based biomedical materials.

This week, the provincial and federal governments announced that they’ve committed $2.5 million to support pulse starch research being led by U of S researcher Yongfeng Ai.

Ai’s project received the money through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program and the Saskatchewan Strategic Research Initiative Program, whose theme is pulse starch utilization.

The work is aimed at improving the processes that are used to transform pulse crops into novel food ingredients as well as bioplastics, biofilms used for packaging and high-value, plant-based products used by the medical industry.

“Today’s investment will stimulate further development and growth in the Saskatchewan pulse and value-added industries by identifying new ways to process pulse starch,” said Saskatchewan ag minister Dave Marit.

The project will bring Saskatchewan closer to achieving a number of goals described in Saskatchewan’s Plan for Growth document, Marit added.

Those goals include processing 50 percent of Saskatchewan pulse crops in the province and increasing the province’s value-added agriculture revenue to $10 billion.

Pulse starches offer a wide variety of characteristics that make them unlike other botanical source materials.

Specifically, pulse starches can be developed into unique biogels that have different physical forms. They can also tolerate high temperature processing and are a good source of resistant starch — a new type of dietary fibre.

The strong gelling and film-forming ability of pulse starches make them a particularly useful ingredient for bioplastics and biomedical materials.

Potential uses include packaging materials, fabric fibres, hemostasis materials and wound dressings.

Unlike plastic-based products, products made from pulses starches are highly biodegradable and compostable.

“This project will build the university’s reputation as a leading research institution, working to highlight Canada’s innovation ecosystem on the global stage,” said Baljit Singh, the university’s vice-president of research.

“Dr. Ai’s work demonstrates the clear potential for the development of value-added pulse products to industry and the public at large.”

Ai, an assistant professor at the university’s College of Agriculture and Bioresearches, will explore new applications for Saskatchewan pulse starches and streamline the processes used to convert pulses into value added starch-based ingredients and products.

Ai also holds Saskatchewan Agriculture’s Endowed Research Chair in Carbohydrate Quality and Utilization. The research will be conducted in U of S laboratories in conjunction with the university’s Crop Development Centre, the departments of animal and poultry science and chemical and biological engineering, the Food Pilot Plant, the Fermentation Pilot Plant and the Bioprocessing Pilot Plant.

Other research collaborators include Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, the Saskatchewan Agri-Food Innovation Centre, the University of Manitoba, the Alberta Food Processing Development Centre and the Canadian International Grains Institute.

Other researchers involved in the project include professors Michael Nickerson, Tom Warkentin, Bunyamin Tar’an, Bishnu Acharya, Darren Korber, Takuji Tanaka and Denise Beaulieu from the U of S and Malcolm Xing from the U of M.

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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