SIT’s Assistant Professor Du Juan and A*STAR’s Associate Professor Bi Xuezhi have been awarded an Industry Alignment Fund (Pre-positioning) to kickstart a first-in-Asia testbed platform to advance research on plant-based proteins. The project is titled “First automated protein profiling and functional characterisation platform for plant-based novel foods”.
- One-stop platform to provide high throughput protein profiling and functional characterisation tests to drive plant-based protein food innovation in Singapore.
- Collaboration with team of specialists with different expertise from SIT, A*STAR, and NUS.
- Meeting Singapore’s ‘30 by 30’ food security goals.
These days, more consumers are making the switch to plant-based diets for health reasons. Many are also more open to trying novel foods and seek a variety of food choices. According to a report by NielsonIQ, manufacturers and investors have been quick to leverage the increasing demand for plant-based proteins.
Plant-based products made from soy, peas, or wheat should be quite familiar to most consumers. However, there are rising concerns over the quality, digestibility, and potential allergens of plant-based proteins – something that food manufacturers need to be aware of when developing novel foods for human consumption.
First IAF-PP Research Project Hosted by SIT
Earlier this year, Asst Prof Du Juan from SIT and A/Prof Bi Xuezhi from A*STAR’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI) were awarded an Industry Alignment Fund – Pre-positioning (IAF-PP) to kickstart the development of a testbed platform to advance research on plant-based proteins in Asia.
This is the first time SIT will host an IAF-PP research project. The grant is awarded under the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme jointly led by Singapore Food Agency and A*STAR. The IAF-PP research project will involve BTI, A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), and the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Team lead and co-Principal Investigator, Asst Prof Du Juan explained why there is a need for such a testbed platform here.
(Left to right) A/Prof Bi Xuezhi from BTI, A*STAR and Asst Prof Du Juan from SIT (SIT Photo)
Why is there a need to develop a testbed platform for plant-based proteins in Singapore?
Currently, the food and beverage industry does not have access to a centralised platform that provides cost-effective and resource-efficient services for protein profiling and functional property tests. This means that companies interested in developing plant-based food products will find it challenging to meet food safety and quality criteria to screen many plant-based protein ingredients due to the unknown allergenicity, nutritional, and functionality information of plant-based protein ingredients.
Why don’t companies pursue this type of research on their own?
Small- and medium-sized enterprises are hampered by the prohibitive cost, a lack of expertise, and access to analytical equipment. Similarly, multinational companies often need to go to different sources to obtain the relevant information and research before they can develop new products. It can be a time consuming, expensive process that may not yield comprehensive results.
What can the proposed testbed platform offer?
Aside from food safety, the testbed can identify previously unknown uses or applications of ingredients. Alternative sources of plant-based proteins that were previously overlooked can be tested at the platform for digestibility, potential allergens, and more.
The platform can help to ‘match’ food and beverage manufacturers with suppliers of raw ingredients. Both types of companies can leverage the platform’s research findings to spark food innovation. The approach is to use an automation process to increase output to profile and characterise functional properties of protein. This will help reduce the time and manpower costs of traditional research methods.
In addition to research on the potential food applications of alternative plant-based protein, the team of researchers also hope to provide technological expertise needed for protein extraction process. The team will also examine broader concerns such as how to store ingredients safely with the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan in mind.
How will you go about selecting the type of plant protein for your research?
Since the platform is based in Singapore, the researchers are planning to focus on ingredients easily available here e.g., rice, barley, and mung beans. The team will look into valorising the waste generated from starch extraction – common by-products from starch production. There is confirmed interest in this project from both SMEs as well as MNCs who are big players in the plant-protein food industry.
How did this idea come about?
Asst Prof Du shared that the idea for this project has been simmering in her mind for a long time. Before she joined SIT, she was from the food and beverage industry.
She said, “I have always thought that there should be a service sector for suppliers of raw ingredients and manufacturers in search of ingredients to develop novel food products. I was fortunate enough to meet A/Prof Bi Xuezhi from A*STAR, who was trained as a plant biologist with proteomics expertise and shared my views, hence we decided to work on a proposal together.”
Front row (from left): A/Prof Susanna Leong, A/Prof Siti Noorbaiyah Abdul Malek, Asst Prof Du Juan, Prof Paul Nicholas Sharratt; Second row (from left): Prof Zhou Weibiao (NUS), Dr Ye Enyi (IMRE), Dr Ho Ying Swan (BTI), Ms. Casandra Chai (IMRE), A/Prof Bi Xuezhi (BTI), Dr Tan Chee Fan (BTI), A/Prof Fung Ho Ki; Third row (from left): Mr Cedric Sow, Mr Travis Lim, A/Prof Mustafa Shabbir Kurbanhusen, Asst Prof Lim Chun Yee, Ms Yolanda Yong Wei Ting. (SIT Photo)
Who are the co-Investigators of this project?
A project like this requires a team of specialists with different types of expertise. The team from SIT comprises A/Prof Susanna Leong, Prof Paul Nicholas Sharratt, A/Prof Siti Noorbaiyah Abdul Malek, A/Prof Fung Ho Ki, Asst Prof Lim Chun Yee, and A/Prof Mustafa Shabbir Kurbanhusen. We are also honoured to have Prof Zhou Weibiao from NUS and a team from A*STAR comprising Dr Ho Ying Swan (BTI), Dr Tan Chee Fan (BTI), and Dr Ye Enyi (IMRE).
Why is there a need for a research platform like this now?
“The research platform will help to accelerate Singapore’s ’30 by 30’ food security goals. As a small country, we are more vulnerable to unpredictable forces such as pandemics and wars. We should explore sustainable ways to use quality ingredients to produce high-quality, nutritious, and safe foods in sustainable quantities,” said Asst Prof Du.