Pulse buyers throw growers quality curveball

A pulse processor that cans and freezes lentils prefers to buy from eastern Asia because the rate of water absorption in Canadian crop is not optimal for that type of handling. | File photo

Customers now interested in functionality traits required by the processing sector and Canada doesn’t always pass muster

Crop quality is far more complicated than it used to be in the pulse crop sector, say industry officials.

In the 1990s and early 2000s quality was largely defined by visual attributes such as size, shape and colour.

“That’s what we put a lot of emphasis on,” Tom Warkentin, a University of Saskatchewan pea breeder, told delegates attending the 2021 virtual Pulse and Special Crops Convention.

A lot of pulses were purchased and consumed whole at that time and they had to look nice.

Breeders focused on attributes like bleaching resistance in green peas.

But today’s buyer is processing and fractionating the crop and is looking for functionality traits.

They want to know about attributes like protein concentration, seed coat breakage resistance and anti-nutritional factors such as trypsin inhibitors, tannins and saponins, he said.

Steve Innes is in charge of procurement for Bonduelle, a company with eight pulse processing plants around the world. The company sells canned and frozen pulses.

“We’re trying to move past those traditional quality attributes and get a little more scientific,” he said.

Bonduelle needs to know things like how permeable the seed coat is, the water-holding capacity of the seed and its protein and starch levels.

While Canadian pulses get high marks in some aspects they leave a little to be desired in other areas.

Lentils are the most difficult pulse or vegetable crop to can and freeze, said Innes.

The company has tried lentils from many different origins and finds that those from east Asia are the best. The rate of water absorption in Canadian lentils is not optimal.

The company is also reporting problems with small green lentils falling apart after blanching and canning.

“It’s one of the most challenging products that we’re currently trying to manufacture,” said Innes.

There have been foreign material issues with fertilizer and sclerotia because colour-sorting machines don’t work after blanching. The steam coming off the lentils blocks the optical scanners.

The colour of chickpeas from Canada and much of the United States is also a problem because they are not the bright yellow that some discerning buyers look for.

“To date, we haven’t been able to find that in Canada and most parts of the U.S.,” he said.

But the biggest challenge is the cracking of seeds in large dry edible beans like red and white kidney beans and cranberry beans.

Mehmet Tulbek, director of research and development with AGT Food and Ingredients, said whole seed hardness has been a problem with peas and select edible beans for decades.

Weather conditions and desiccation can create a seed hull structure that limits water absorption, affecting soaking quality, canning quality and fried snack product quality of pulses.

But he noted that overall, buyers in the ingredients market are pleased with the overall quality and consistency of Canada’s pulses.

Charlie Kauffman, senior product specialist with PerkinElmer, works for a company that manufactures equipment that measures food safety and quality.

“We’ve all seen it — there are some lots of lentils that are resistant to hydration and cooking,” he said.

Those lots look indistinguishable from lots that are going to perform well when cooked.

PerkinElmer has a rapid visual analyzer machine that can detect which is which.

“We can identify those permeability issues,” he said.

The company also has machines that measure moisture, fat, fibre and protein levels. It has machines that can determine how pulses will react to cooking, how the starch will perform as a flour and other functionality issues.

Warkentin said one of the next quality frontiers for pulses will be breeding for amino acid profiles.

Breeding for size, shape and colour is relatively easy compared to breeding for more complicated traits like amino acid profiles.

For one thing, there are 20 amino acids. For another, it is a trait that involves multiple genes. Lastly, it is expensive to test thousands of samples for desirable amino acid profiles.

Breeders are working with quality testing companies to develop cheaper and quicker tests that may not be as accurate as the more expensive tests but will be good enough.

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