Scientists are working with farmers, ranchers and processors to make Alberta’s agricultural practices and food production healthy, sustainable and efficient
Alberta is a food province, fertile ground for beef, pork, wheat, canola, barley, beans, chickpeas, lentils, potatoes and more.
Mar. 13, 2017
By Debby Waldman (originally appeared in Apple Magazine – Spring 2017)
Photographed by Laughing Dog Photography
The food we grow, raise and process is second only to the oil and gas sector in economic impact and is shipped to markets across Canada and around the world.
On the front lines of the province’s $28-billion agri-food industry are some 43,000 farmers and livestock producers, more than 500 food manufacturers and a growing number of scientists and researchers. Together, they make Alberta’s agricultural practices and food innovations healthy, sustainable and efficient.
“To be modern and profitable at farming, you need to be aware of emerging technologies and how they can be beneficial not only to farming operations, but also how applying technology will affect consumers,” says Cornelia Kreplin, PhD, the Executive Director of Sustainable Production and Food Innovation for Alberta Innovates. Her team funds research that adds value to Alberta’s agriculture and food industry.
Consumers are making their preferences known on issues such as genetically modified foods, animal welfare and antibiotic use, Kreplin says.
As the world’s population grows—to about 9.7 billion by 2050—Alberta and Canada are expected to play a significant role in food production. The country is one of about a half-dozen around the world that produces more food than it consumes.
“Canada has a social responsibility in feeding the world, but it also has an economic opportunity to increase productivity on each hectare of land that we have that is arable and able to produce the food that is needed,” Kreplin says.
Nutrition’s critical role
“I don’t think we can underestimate the critical role that nutrition can play in health both in preventing and managing chronic diseases,” says Elizabeth Muir, Alberta Innovates’ Director of Value-Added.
“The logical end point of the research is to take it out of the lab and engage Alberta’s food processors so that they will incorporate the research into manufacturing products that are healthy, taste great, and are convenient and affordable.” Alberta Innovates’ research includes the following projects.
Barley is best
As a whole grain, barley contains beta-glucan, a fibre in the cell walls of some cereal grains. Health Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration allow products with one to three grams of beta-glucan to claim that, as part of a nutritionally balanced diet, the fibre can help to reduce blood cholesterol—making it a weapon against heart disease.
Two Alberta scientists have made it possible for people to obtain the benefits of barley beta-glucan without having to consume massive amounts of the whole grain.
Thava Vasanthan, PhD, a professor in the Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences (ALES) at the University of Alberta, has developed a technology to extract beta-glucan from barley for use as a supplement in food products.
Kevin Swallow, PhD, a food scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, worked with five Alberta companies to develop six new food products (from muffins to nutrition bars) that can carry the Health Canada and USFDA health claim.
Improving beef production
John Crowley, PhD, a U of A research geneticist, and his colleagues at Livestock Gentec, an Alberta Innovates research centre, developed a test that determines the most efficient eaters in cattle. Their research helps identify which animals can gain the most weight eating the least amount of food. Crowley’s research is giving ranchers a more sustainable and economical way to produce high-quality meat.
Studying pea fibre and weight management
Raylene Reimer, PhD, a member of the Diabetes & Endocrinology Research Group at the University of Calgary, ran a 12-week study that gave participants equal calorie doses of a placebo or a yellow pea-fibre wafer. The participants were male and female adults between 30 and 60 years old who were overweight or obese.
Reimer measured her subjects throughout the study and found, in the absence of other lifestyle changes, eating 15 grams a day of the fibre may help manage obesity and result in significant, albeit small, metabolic benefits.
The Alberta Food Composition Database
Between 20,000 and 40,000 chemicals make up food’s colour, taste, texture and aroma. David Wishart, PhD, and his staff in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta set out to identify and quantify between 500 and 1,000 of the most common chemicals in Alberta-grown grains, fruits, vegetables and meats.
Wishart hopes the Alberta Food Composition Database gives farmers a competitive advantage by allowing them to breed or select for crops or animals or food products for more or fewer specific compounds.
Disclosure: writer Debby Waldman is married to Wishart.
Fighting cancer with healthy oils
U of A cancer and diabetes researcher Catherine Field, PhD, analyzed the anticancer properties of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in canola oil and found every concentration reduced the growth of the breast cancer cells. Her work is evidence that some healthy fatty acids need to be a bigger part of our diet.
More reasons to drink milk
U of C researcher Prasanth Chelikani, PhD, studies how the body responds to proteins and other nutrients. In one project conducted on obese rats, the milk protein whey reduced body weight and controlled blood sugar.
Whey accounts for 20 per cent of milk’s protein (casein makes up the remaining 80 per cent), but has significant effects.
Chelikani also found that one of whey’s molecular components, lactoferrin, was helpful in weight loss and glucose control. He hopes that his discoveries can be used to develop nutraceuticals.