Pulse Beat Individual Articles

Introducing the Prairie Plant Protein Project

Laina Hughes, Communications Officer, Red River College – Fall/Winter (December) Pulse Beat 2020

Here in Manitoba, agri-food innovation is in our roots. The keystone province is the place to dream up and work on food innovation and development, thanks to our abundance of agriculture and culinary science professionals. From food engineering, food processing, food science, culinary science to nutrition research, our food researchers and research institutes fertilize the grounds for expanding food innovation. Red River College’s Prairie Research Kitchen is a new applied research facility that supports food application and development by focusing on the role of culinary arts to make great food innovations that start in our test kitchens.

The Prairie Research Kitchen is currently collaborating with the University of Manitoba’s Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences, as well as the Food Development Centre (FDC) — in partnership with funding from the Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG), Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) Ag Action Manitoba and Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) — to build new, innovative ingredients and products using prairie plant protein sources like dry beans, soybeans and hemp in the project Development of value-added food platform technologies using plant-based protein sources including bean, soy and hemp. In this project, equalling nearly $90,000, researchers are extracting and coagulating plant proteins to form curds, which then can be used in a plethora of interesting, novel food applications.

“Manitoba has so much expertise in the food R&D area,” says Heather Hill, Research Manager at the Prairie Research Kitchen. “The project itself is a way to network between research organizations and to come to a greater endpoint in food and protein development.”

The Canadian prairies are the perfect place to launch developments in plant proteins. Our farmers grow many protein-rich crops like black beans, navy beans, soybeans, hemp and fava beans. Once these nutritious crops grow and mature, Manitoba’s food research and development specialists take over — turning these crops into novel food products that are not only tasty, but nutritious.

“Beyond R&D, Manitoba is a good place to grow plant protein products,” says Hill. “Manitoba regionally produces high-quality protein products. By using our R&D facilities here, we can capitalize on using them in food products.”

Food Science researchers at the University of Manitoba (U of M) have the ability to characterize plant proteins for their quality traits in order to understand which are best suited for novel food applications. Dr. Filiz Koksel and her team use technology called Differential Scanning Calorimetry to characterize proteins and their behaviours and tell which varieties might be better suited for forming protein curds.

From here, the food engineers and food technologists at the FDC can work with the select varieties of prairie plants to extract their proteins using large-scale food processing equipment. Their background in food science and food engineering enables them to understand how processing parameters can be changed to best extract the proteins to maintain their functionality for further food processing.

Research chefs at the Prairie Research Kitchen then work collaboratively with food scientists to turn these extracted proteins into tofu-like protein curds and use them in a number of recipes and food applications.

“We have a co-op student who’s helping to support activities on this project while learning more and more about protein extraction,” says Hill. “They get to build on their skills from culinary school while working on protein production. The U of M has also hired a student to focus on the more analytical work on types of proteins.”

The protein curds can be used much in the same way as traditional tofu. However, chefs also bring the ingredients to life to highlight texture and flavours of the ingredients based on new and upcoming food trends, like non-dairy cheese, vegan nuggets or even brownies.

“For us at the Prairie Research Kitchen, we can tap into the creativity and expertise that chefs bring, in terms of creating new food products and using foods in novel and trendy ways — we pride ourselves on that here,” says Hill. “We complement the more scientific and engineering approach of the FDC in terms of ingredients. They’re really good at protein extraction and we don’t want to replicate that here. We have the culinary perspective and can complement the research element in projects like this, and other projects over the long term.”

Nutrition scientists have the ability to truly understand how new proteins can benefit our bodies. Blending plant proteins provide a combination of a number of amino acids that can be tailored to create a complete protein. Dr. Jim House and his team can evaluate the level of digestibility of these new proteins to make sure consumers are getting the nutrition that they need.

“With the overall emphasis on plant proteins right now, this project helps to build a baseline understanding of how we could differently position tofu-style products for more diverse uses of plant proteins, beyond just a block of tofu,” says Hill. “We’re definitely interested in changing the definition of tofu. I see big potential — I see these protein trends becoming mainstream.”

This project was made possible through the support from MPSG, CAP Ag Action Manitoba and NSERC.