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Development of processing strategies for innovative commercially-ready pulse ingredients for the Canadian food sector

This major five-year project will start by examining value-added processing of prairie pulse crops, and ultimately develop new products and ingredients.

What happens when Western Canada grows far more pulses than it can process? Someone else realizes more value from these crops than we do.

It’s a situation Mike Nickerson, Professor and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan, captures neatly with a story about prairie-grown peas, Chinese processing and American manufacturing.

“I was told of a company that would buy Canadian peas, ship them to China to get processed into a concentrate, then ship it back to their plant in the States to make into a pet food product,” Nickerson said.

He sees no reason why Canadians can’t create that kind of added value right here. Currently, significant pulse processing capacity is being built or planned in Western Canada to take advantage of booming world demand for plant protein. Making the most of this opportunity will be Nickerson’s focus over the next five years.

With funding support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and prairie pulse growers, he’ll be investigating innovative ways to process crops such as yellow peas, red lentils, Kabuli chickpeas and navy beans into high-value ingredients for a new generation of healthier food products.

Plant-based proteins now a processed food alternative

It’s well known that pulses have vast potential as a healthy, versatile and gluten-free food ingredient. What’s stopping food manufacturers from going all out with pulse ingredients? As Nickerson explains, food manufacturers need to be certain that new products will perform well.

“When a company makes a decision to slip in peas or lentils to replace some other ingredients,” Nickerson said, “they want to know it will not make major changes to the quality of the food product.”

Take pulse flour as one example. This ingredient can be used in pasta, soups, baked goods and more. Under Nickerson’s leadership, the project team will dive deep into the functionality and nutritional value of pulse flour — examining the role of particle size and processing techniques like fermentation and roasting.

“It’s a wide snapshot and a big project,” Nickerson said. “We go right from the farm to product development. We’re working through the milling stage to fully understand that, then will use that knowledge to tailor product development.”

Toward the latter stages of the project, Nickerson’s team will develop new prototype products made from pulse ingredients, then transfer this new knowledge to industry. It’s his hope that this will help food manufacturers confidently make the leap from conventional ingredients to more pulse-based ingredients.

To Nickerson, the beauty of this research is that it will be applicable and available to companies of all sizes, including those in Alberta.

“There are large and small companies looking to capitalize on how they can add value from pulses, and this includes farmers,” he said. “The industry is growing immensely in Alberta. It’s not a single company project. We’re here to open it up to the whole sector and help everyone grow.”