Something to chew over

by Rebecca Priestley / 07 February, 2013
Two Kiwis are looking at ways to produce higher-protein foods that could help change the world.
Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh
Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh: fundamental, curiosity-driven science. Photo/Sciencelens

‘A marriage made in heaven.” That’s how professor Paul Moughan describes his award-winning research partnership with Professor Harjinder Singh. Late last year, the pair, who are co-directors of the Riddet Institute at Massey University, were awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, worth $500,000, for their world- leading research in food-protein science.

Moughan, who has a background in physiology and food chemistry, and Singh, who has a biochemistry background, have spent much of their research partnership studying proteins and the amino acids that make up those proteins.

Singh focuses on trying to understand the fundamental properties of food at a molecular level. In turn, Moughan investigates what happens to those molecules within the human body. Their research is fundamental, curiosity-driven science, but “when we have the opportunity to somehow translate that science into some meaningful product or process, or something that can benefit the country, that’s even more satisfying,” says Singh.

This ethos is part of the institute’s heritage. The institute is named after Scottish agriculturalist William Riddet, who in 1927 became founding professor of agriculture at Massey Agricultural College and director of the Dairy Research Institute. “Prof Riddet did fundamental science,” says Moughan, “but he had an ability to translate it to applied science and an ability to take the applied science right through to the factory or the farm.”

And that’s just what Singh and Moughan are doing. Their research is now used in food products and processing techniques worldwide. A high-dose omega-3 shot, in which the omega-3 molecules are encapsulated in milk proteins to disguise the fishy smell and taste, is now in the final stages of commercialisation.

Another product close to commercialisation uses proteins and peptides isolated from low-cost meat waste in an easily digestible soup designed for older people who are losing muscle mass.

Although high-tech processed foods can be a great way of delivering protein to people on a restricted diet, the team also studies natural structures in foods and tries to understand why they are beneficial to humans.

“If natural foods are better for people, then it means that the natural structures that make up those foods are better,” says Moughan. “But what is it about the chemistry and physics of those natural structures that provides these beneficial effects? When we understand that from a scientific point of view, we can start to do something about the food source of humankind.”

One of the natural foods they’re investigating is kiwifruit. “We’re providing a fundamental scientific basis for the common understanding that kiwifruit is good for digestive health,” says Singh. There’s protein even in kiwifruit – the tangy green fruit contains an enzyme, actinidin, that acts on the digestion of proteins in the stomach.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work characterising the digestion of different food proteins and the effect of actinidin on their rate of breakdown,” says Moughan.

“A potential application of that is that some people can feel discomfort when they consume a large protein meal. And a protein that will break down the protein more rapidly, and more completely, may lead to an alleviation of that discomfort.”

“There’s a lot more information coming through on the health benefits of high-protein diets,” says Singh. “Producing foods with a higher protein content is really important for humankind and the developing world, for combating malnutrition and promoting health.”

In the meantime, there’s fundamental research to do – from what Moughan calls the institute’s engine room. Knowledge gained here “radiates out and keeps providing the ideas, the knowledge, the inspiration, for the applied research”.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more
Climate change: New study finds worst case scenario might not be as bad
85994 2018-01-18 08:27:48Z Environment

Climate change: New study finds worst case scenari…

by Charlie Dreaver

Global warming's worst case scenario may not be as bad as previously thought, a new climate change study says.

Read more