With Canadian crops becoming more valuable and serving an expanding market, Canada has become one of the world’s largest pea producers, with production estimated at 4.6 million tonnes in 2020 alone.
In 2021, French company Roquette made Manitoba the home of the largest pea protein plant across the globe with the unveiling of its facility in Portage la Prairie.
However, according to University of Manitoba assistant professor and Canada research chair in food proteins and bioproducts Nandika Bandara, the bulk of the protein produced is exported and not processed within Canada.
While Roquette does process protein in Canada, Bandara pointed out that they use a traditional alkaline extraction method in their plant.
Traditional alkaline extraction involves using a high pH to make the protein soluble, followed by a low pH to make it a precipitate. Though this widely used industrial technique is simple and suitable for mass production at low cost, it can decrease protein nutritional value. Bandara explained that this process also damages aspects of the protein’s functionality, such as its thickening ability.
Earlier in September, Bandara received funding through Research Manitoba’s New Investigator Operating Grant Competition for his project “Novel and Sustainable Technologies for Protein Ingredient Development and Functionalization from Canadian Crops.” He plans on expanding protein innovation in the Canadian food industry.
“What we propose in this particular method is a method that we can extract the protein from Canadian crops, without changing pH to extreme temperatures,” Bandara said. “Theoretically, the functional properties should be retained without any changes.”
“The advantage of using, or developing, this method is [that] then we can develop protein ingredients without damaging the protein function,” he added.
Bandara and his research team focus on four major themes in their work. This includes using Canadian-grown crops to develop protein ingredients, modification of proteins and improving its functionality for different food and non-food applications, he explained.
Bandara and his team recently developed a new protein extraction technology which has not been previously seen in the food industry.
“There was an extraction technology for small molecule compounds for deep eutectic solvents, but it was not used for the large molecules like protein before,” he said.
“So we actually modified that method to suit large molecules with larger size and molecular weight.”
Food packaging applications are the next theme of Bandara’s research. He explained that work is being done on food packaging production using protein and lignocellulosic materials — plant-based materials containing cellulose.
Bandara explained that when extracting protein — from a pea, for example — there are materials that are left behind. “We use that leftover material, which contains lipids and cellulose mainly, to prepare food packaging tubes,” he said.
Bandara noted that the cellulose is further broken down into nanocellulose, a tiny particle that his team used to enhance the useful properties of the pea protein.
The final two themes of Bandara’s research focus on protein application within the health industry and the development of biomedical materials.
He explained that these proteins are being used to develop nanostructures — structures ranging between one nanometre to 100 nanometres — that hold and deliver active compounds such as drugs.
Bandara also mentioned that some of the group’s work involves using ultra-feathered keratin — a structurally fibrous protein produced naturally by the body — to develop wound-healing materials aimed at accelerating skin growth.
In their research, Bandara and his team apply green technology methods by using reusable materials, reducing waste.
All the materials the team uses are food-grade, non-toxic materials safe for direct food contact.
These novel and sustainable technologies being developed by Bandara and his team can be used in additional food applications, benefiting Canadian farmers and the processing industry and further propelling the Canadian agribusiness scene.
“If you can develop highly functional protein ingredients from most commonly grown Canadian crops, that’s an evaluated market,” Bandara said.