A better burger

Researcher Profile: Tiffany Nicholson

Just in time for grillin’ season, a University of Manitoba master’s student is preparing to defend her research into a functional food that may improve Canada’s favourite barbequed meat: the hamburger.

Tiffany Nicholson is a registered dietitian who received her bachelor of science in human nutritional sciences from the department of human ecology at the U of M in December of 2010. Nicholson said that she has long been interested in nutrition and human health. Before returning to academic life after spending her early twenties working in the food service and hospitality industry, she had been interested in homeopathy or naturopathy. However, she found that pursuing such a path would have necessitated a move out of province. Nicholson eventually decided to pursue human nutrition at the U of M.

While waiting to take her dietetic internship – which is necessary to become a registered dietitian in Canada — in September 2011, Nicholson began work on her master’s under Dr. Mohammed Moghadasian, a principal investigator at the St. Boniface Research Centre. In conjunction with the George Weston Ltd Sensory and Food Research Lab at the U of M, Nicholson is researching the effects of micronization on black bean flour and whether it can be effectively incorporated into low-fat beef burgers.

“We did a consumer study to see if this would have any market value,” Nicholson told the Gradzette.

“We recruited almost 100 people from the U of M. We conducted this consumer study and tried just regular beef burgers and then with six per cent of different micronization levels. Then we’re going to analyze the data to see if that micronization [a heat treatment process] might have affected the flavour, or the consumer’s sensibility of the flavour.”

According to Nicholson, “Canadians consume a large number of hamburgers [per year]. Compared to chicken, fish, pulses and alternatives like tofu, beans and that, we still eat predominantly red meat. Out of red meat, about 35 per cent of that is in hamburger form.”

By including an alternative protein supplement—black beans, in this case—to burger patties, producers could offer consumers a healthier product. Nicholson’s research, in part, is attempting to determine if such a substitution is palatable to consumers.

“If we can incorporate a pulse like a black bean flour, which is lower in fat, higher in fibre, but not affect the taste or desirability, that will benefit Canadians.”

Nicholson’s research continues similar research that U of M’s Dr. Michel Aliani recently completed with another master’s student, which focused on incorporating chickpea and lentil flour into hamburgers.

“We wanted to look at black bean flour, [because] beans are much more popular in North America than chickpeas or lentils,” Nicholson explained. “Some people don’t even recognize a lentil!”

With her thesis defense coming up in August, Nicholson is close to finishing her analysis.

“So far, with the instrumental analysis we’ve found significant difference between the all-beef control and once you add in the pulse flours. You’re seeing better fatty acid profiles, better pH values, better water retention capacity. That means you’re having less drip loss.”

Nicholson added, “When [most people] make a burger you add some sort of binder, egg or wheat flour or something. We actually used a wheat flour control as well. Certainly an all-beef patty kind of becomes like a ‘hockey puck.’ It loses a lot of water, becomes really rubbery.”

Nicholson explained that when she began her research, she had long been interested in husbandry practices, such as organic farming and grass fed beef compared to conventional modern practices.

“I did an initial pilot project during my undergrad comparing the different fatty acids profiles of different types of meat and the different things they were fed and the ways they were raised,” she said. That background in fatty acid and lipid extraction was brought to fore in her current masters’ research.

“We kind of combined that with the sensory aspect, looking at fatty acids, looking at enzyme activity to see if that process of micronization affects enzyme activity. Those enzymes that are supposed to cause that ‘beany’ flavour that can turn consumers off. “

Nicholson has yet to analyze the data from consumers, so the jury is still out as to whether black bean flour is a suitable additive to our backyard barbeques. Whatever the results, there is more to discover in the field of functional foods.

“We’re looking at effects of these really high heat treatments, up to 140 degrees Celsius. It’s out of the range of my masters’ project, what vitamins and minerals you’re destroying at that temperature.”

Is Nicholson planning on continuing her research at the PhD level at this point?

“My main interest is clinical dietetics. I’ve been in school for seven years,” she tells the Gradzette with a chuckle. While not completely closing the door on furthering her academic life, Nicholson says she does have priority after completing her master’s.

“I’d like to find a job!”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.