Going to seed

(Edmonton) Canadian barley might be making a move from your plate to your vanity, as researchers with the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science have discovered some innovative new uses for the ancient food grain.

Lingyun Chen, assistant professor in plant protein chemistry and technology, along with her team of researchers, have not only developed a cost-effective method of extracting the protein from the raw grain, but have also come up with a number of original applications for its use.

“When we analyzed the barley protein, we found some very interesting properties,” said Chen. “One of the most interesting being that it serves as a very good emulsifier and encapsulation material, which we realized could have benefits for the personal-care or food industries.”

Chen says barley protein has the ability to replace many existing emulsifying agents in a variety of food and cosmetic products and can also be used to encapsulate many neutraceuticals, concealing their occasionally unpleasant taste and odour, and protecting them from deterioration before being absorbed into the intestine.

Many “personal-care” products, such as skin creams, hair conditioners and ointments, rely on emulsifiers in their formulation. These have traditionally been derived from animal products or, more recently, completely synthesized. Given emergent market trends towards natural, sustainable and organic products, Chen feels that these new applications of this ancient grain is exactly what consumers are looking for.

In addition to barley protein’s potential applications in the personal-care industry, Chen’s team also found numerous similarities to ingredients currently being used in retail food products.

“The barley protein has similar capacity to lecithin, which is a soy-based emulsifying agent commonly used in the food industry,” said Chen, “but lecithin is very expensive. The production cost with barley is much lower.”

Adding value to one of Alberta’s largest grain crops presented a special challenge for researchers, as a limited amount of study had been done on barley protein to date.

“Our first job was to develop a cost-effective process to extract the protein from the grain. Then we had to systematically analyze the structure and properties, and finally, we had to determine where those properties could add value,” she explained.

Chen’s research has already led to a number of patented technologies which have resulted in a $4.4 million investment from the federal government that will help to test and commercialize her new products. Additional support is also being provided through the Alberta Barley Commission and Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions.

“Result-oriented research is what the agriculture industry needs,” said Matt Sawyer, chair of the Alberta Barley Commission. “This kind of producer investment highlights the value of renewable agricultural products while raising awareness and creating value for Alberta barley farmers.”

Chen’s position as the Alberta Barley Cereal Protein Chair is co-funded by the Alberta Barley Commission and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund.