By Hermione Wilson
In April 2017, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute published a report summarizing a series of nationwide roundtables on Canada’s competitiveness as a global food leader. The roundtable discussions were based on recommendations released by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth in February 2017 which recommended that the Canadian government take a targeted approach to removing growth obstacles from the agri-food sector and emphasized the potential for Canada to become “the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food for the 21st century.”
The report said, “There is now increasing awareness outside of our food system of the tremendous opportunities presented by a burgeoning global population, a growing global middle class, and changing consumer trends such as increased demand for higher-value food, like proteins and functional foods that have health benefits beyond simple nutrition.”
Part of Canada taking its place as a leading producer of high-value food is high-quality research that adds value to Canada’s agri-food products. Indeed, the “Canada as an Agri-Food Powerhouse” report indicates Canada needs improved capacity, which according to roundtables with the provinces, is seen as “less than half of what it should be for the size of the industry.”
At the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) in Manitoba, Team Leader Carla Taylor and her fellow scientists seek to advance medical treatments through the application of novel agricultural products. The researchers at CCARM are studying Canadian agri-food products like beans, peas, lentils, oil seed crops, cereal crops, and berries in order to better understand how bioactive compounds in these foods could help manage diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and inflammation.
“Our mandate is to provide reliable scientific evidence-based information about the health benefits of functional foods and nutraceuticals, and to conduct studies to the same standards as you would expect with a pharmaceutical,” Taylor says.
As the Principal Investigator of the Metabolic Nutrition Laboratory, Taylor and her colleague and Deputy Team Leader Peter Zahradka have been studying pulses through a series of animal and human studies. They have been able to show that pulses, particularly lentils, can improve cardiovascular health by altering the structural and functional properties of blood vessels.
“This data means that we can reverse some of the changes that happen with atheroscolerosis, which is the primary cause of heart attack and stroke,” Taylor says.
Most of Taylor and Zahradka’s work has been focused on the functional food aspect of the CCARM research mandate. Taylor says they plan to shift that focus in the near future to studying new bioactives in certain agri-food products. In particular, they want to do a deeper investigation of the health effects of pulses, beyond the digestive benefits of its high fibre content.
Another of Taylor’s colleagues is looking into the bioactive compounds present in Saskatoon berries, what their positive health effects are, and how they are metabolized by the human body. Michel Aliani, the Principal Investigator of the Agri-Health Metabolomics Laboratory at CCARM, is using Saskatoon berry frozen yogurt, developed in collaboration with the dairy science unit at the University of Manitoba, as a delivery method in his study.
“[Using] metabolomics he is analyzing both the Saskatoon berry powder in the yogurt and the blood and urine of people who have consumed the Saskatoon berries, to be able to make that direct link,” Taylor says.
At the University of Saskatchewan, Associate Dean of Research Jane Alcorn is doing similar work with flax seeds and the lignans found in them.
“These molecules have been associated with a number of health benefits, cardiovascular disease risk factors in particular,” Alcorn says. “Epidemiological evidence points to reduction in cholesterol, reduction in blood pressure, et cetera.”
Alcorn and her research group have been trying to understand the mechanisms of action associated with those health effects. So far they have identified a mechanism of action by which the lignans in flax seeds are reducing cholesterol, that may also be linked to the reduction of cardiovascular and cancer risk.
Alcorn tells a story of a dietary supplement product called BeneFlax that was created using technology Agriculture and Agri-food Canada developed in the 1990s to extract lignans from flax seed. BeneFlax was a lignan-rich complex approved by both Health Canada and the FDA. It was marketed for a few years before the company selling it decided to discontinue it and focus instead on flavinoids. BeneFlax hasn’t been on the market since.
“My goal, when I got into this field, was to provide some scientific evidence behind the lignans to support the remarketing of a product like BeneFlax, because it was marketed, it was approved by both regulatory agencies, and there is a lot of epidemiological evidence to show it does have benefit in mild and moderate disease,” Alcorn says. She has used the BeneFlax supplement in subsequent human clinical trials to show the safety and tolerability in both healthy and frail elderly adults.
“I’ve been building a body of evidence around this product that can be created, only if someone would come along and show the interest in remarketing it,” Alcorn says. “There is capability, from an agricultural perspective, of easily finding value-added uses for these bioactives of flax. I think the biggest barrier to any of these things is not commercialization, but actually marketing, getting it out there and having the general public understand that there is value.”
The agri-food industry is certainly taking
notice. The recent success of MSPrebiotics, which took its product – a potato
starch supplement – to CCARM for further research, is a great example of how
value-added research can have a positive effect on both human health
and sector growth. A clinical trial conducted by CCARM researcher Michelle Alfa using the MSPrebiotics product has provided this Manitoba-based company with the scientific evidence required to market their product for gut health.
“The research adds value to the crops, and understanding more about bioactive compounds in our food is important for better management of different diseases,” Taylor says. “By investigating how certain bioactive compounds are metabolized in specific individuals and in the absence and presence of various diseases, we can get a better understanding of how they work and in the future be able to make more specific recommendations for what’s going to be more beneficial for certain groups of people or different types of diseases.”