Monday 29 September 2014

Food, glorious superfoods, at the CETC September seminar

It was a positive delight to attend the September seminar by the Cambridge Enterprise and Technology Club, at the St John’s innovation Centre last week. We were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of talks at the cutting edge of super foods research. Three speakers introduced us to novel ways of producing three types of nutrients: long chain fatty acids, anthocyanins and Quorn.

Getting to the heart of the matter – the Ahi flower

When the agricultural revolution began some 7 ½ thousand years BC in the fertile crescent, it led to the gradual spread of cereals as a food source throughout Europe, finally reaching the UK around 5000 years BC. And with those cereals came a weed that would turn out to be an alternative source of the long chain fatty acids that we currently get in fish oils.

Dr Lydia Smith from NIAB introduced us to Buglossoides arvensis, now known under the more memorable name of the Ahiflower. The original plant produced reasonable levels of SDA (or steridonic acid), a nutrient that can be processed by the body into beneficial long chain fatty acids. The latter have been linked with a reduction in death from coronary heart disease.

But how do you turn a weed into a useful crop? Well, you have to learn how to consistently grow it and propagate it from year to year, producing enough of the valuable oils to be commercially viable. Only then can you get the farmers interested.

Lydia took us through some of the highs and lows that her team work through from the early years in 2004 to the present. It meant finding and identifying different Ahi flower varieties and crossbreeding to get the first commercially viable products. 10 years is a remarkably short timescale in agriculture. The use of modern molecular technology to characterise and identify the different varieties was of great assistance.

And as part of that work, we gained a glimpse of what might have happened, how the unassuming Ahi flower was brought to the UK during the past agricultural revolution, the spread of cereals in neolithic times.

Your five fruit for the day packed into one

It is said that the beneficial effects of drinking red wine are due to the high levels of anthocyanins, those purple pigments that give the wine its rich warm colour. You can find those same anthocyanins in many red and purple fruits, including the brambles in our hedgerows.

Dr Eugenio Butelli, JIC looked for a suitable existing crop plant that might be transformed to produce more of these anthocyanins. His choice was the tomato.

Yet rather surprisingly, the red colour in tomatoes is created by a totally different compound, also beneficial, lycopene. Eugenio took a combined approach of introducing additional enzymes into the tomato plants and finding tomato variants with altered biochemical pathways.
The result was a visual feast of colours from golden yellows through to the deepest purples. Tomato fruits could be produced enriched in a variety of beneficial compounds; from anthocyanins, isoflavones and phyto-oestrogens.

In fact, one JIC tomato could produce levels of anthocyanins equivalent to 50 bottles of red wine, but without the hangover. Indeed the levels are so high, that the tomatoes are more ideally suited to processing and extraction to extract the beneficial nutrients for use in other foods.

Trials are currently underway to ensure the plants overcome the necessary regulatory hurdles and safety checks.

Tasty protein without the guilt

As the world’s nations become increasingly affluent, aspirational diners are turning to protein. But most of this protein is in the form of meat, from cattle, pigs to chicken. Diet conscious Westerners have also been turning to protein as a way to control weight, for example with the Atkins diet.

Animal protein requires a lot of agricultural land, an increasingly valuable resource in a world with an expected population of 9 billion.

Yet for decades there has been an alternative solution, Quorn.

As Dr Tim Finnigan, Quorn Foods, ruefully quotes, Quorn is a 50-year-old overnight sensation!

What I hadn’t realised was, that the discovery of the filamentous fungus that is the basis of Quorn was driven by the foresight of Lord Rank in the 1960s. 

At that time there was already serious concern about protein shortages in the future. Lord Rank of Rank Hovis McDougall, initiated an in-house research programme. The aim was to find an organism that can convert the waste from cereal manufacture into a protein rich food. The fusarium fungus was found in 1967 and Quorn entered the UK market in 1993.

It is the filamentous nature of the fungus that makes it such a good protein substitute for meat; it can reproduce the texture and bite that the diner expects. And there are other benefits too, for example a much lower fat content.

Tim didn’t just want us to digest his talk mentally! He brought with him a whole buffet of tasty bites which were the signal for the networking part of the evening to begin.

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