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Consumer demands driving oat research

From shakes for cancer patients to high-protein vegan foods, oats have potential

Health conscious people are in “the know” about the benefits of eating oats and oat products. Oats truly are a super food, high in dietary fiber that many studies suggest can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and colorectal cancer.

At the University of Alberta’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutritional Science, Dr. Lingyun Chen is leading three research projects in collaboration with the Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA): oat-protein enriched beverages, a lactose-free, oat-based coffee additive and products containing oat fractions.

Using all the parts

Traditionally, oats have been used in their whole ingredient form for products such as flour, groats, flaked and rolled oats. Most current fractionation methods focus on extracting one or two ingredients from oats, often resulting in decreased quality, functionality and usability of the remaining product and reducing the value-added potential of oats.

Chen is using a cost-effective new air classification machine to extract all the oat ingredient fractions in usable form; beta-glucan (fibre), protein, starch and oil. The goal is to develop one to three prototype products from each oat fraction and try to interest retailers and food processors in using the products. For example, oat protein has similarities to egg whites, and could be used in vegan foods.

Helping cancer patients

For sellers to claim their food products as high-protein, the foods must contain 10 to 20 per cent more protein that regular foods. It’s not always easy to incorporate that much protein — especially from plant sources — and make foods that are appetizing as well as nutritious. This makes oat a versatile choice because it has a relatively neutral taste and flavour. Combining oats with pulse proteins improves the nutritive value of the final foods. “Cereal proteins and pulse proteins are complimentary in amino acids,” says Chen.

Another project is working on high-oat-protein beverages: a high-fibre, protein enriched shake suitable for people who are lactose intolerant; and, a nutritious, oat-based beverage with the sensory and nutritional properties to improve the quality of life of patients undergoing radiation therapy.

“Many cancer patients have digestion issues, they cannot swallow food, and they have different sensory requirements,” says Chen. “We think an oat-based beverage is a good formulation for cancer patients because it can provide the protein they need to build muscle and the beta-glucan could help to improve their condition after cancer treatment.”

Cancer patients at the Cross Cancer Institute in Alberta have tested the oat-based beverage, fortified with vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. “According to sensory tests, most of the cancer patients appreciate the taste and also the nutritive value so that’s a good start,” says Chen. The next step is to assess the effect of consuming the beverage on cancer patient’s overall condition. “The idea is that if this is acceptable, we can make this into a specific food for cancer patients that will improve their nutritive value. If we can find processors interested in producing this beverage it may be a large market for them, because currently there are not many choices for cancer patients in terms of food products.”

Chen’s team is also hoping to develop an oat-based coffee creamer that would be the first of its kind on the market. Combining oat protein and beta-glucan they hope to produce a functional and competitive lactose-free coffee additive.

All of these value-added projects are demonstrating that oat is not only a productive and valuable crop for farmers, but that it’s also an important and versatile functional food with many uses and benefits for human health.

“We have prototype products developed and are working with the food industry to bring this to the next step,” says Chen. “Certainly, this research attracts a lot of interest in the industry.”

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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