Plant protein of the future grown in Danish rapeseed fields
Today, we use rapeseed for cooking oil and the rest as feed for farm animals. But rapeseed is more than just an abundant crop in Denmark, and its use is not limited to cooking oil. It also has extraordinary potential as food, which is what the research project SEEDFOOD focuses on. SEEDFOOD aims to unfold the potential of rapeseed protein as a healthy and tasty plant protein. This is where Professor Alexander Kai Büll from DTU Bioengineering and his vast knowledge of proteins come into play.
“You could say that rapeseed has the potential to become a new and important source of protein for Danes," said Kai Büll. "It contains some of the nutritionally best proteins found relative to other plant proteins. But the potential of rapeseed as a protein crop is untapped because the properties of rapeseed protein must be adapted to match consumer expectations for the texture and flavor of our foods. We hope to be able to develop such modification methods in the SEEDFOOD project.”
The advance of plant proteins in both research and public interest is based on the idea that, in the future, agricultural land must be used to an even greater extent to grow food for human consumption if our food consumption and production are to be sustainable. By eating more green and plant-based food, we can release land, reduce emissions of CO2, and produce more food on less land.
A major obstacle in creating a sustainable food transition is a better utilization of crops already being cultivated in the fields around us to produce new forms of plant proteins. In Denmark, rapeseed is grown twice a year and in such large quantities that the production we have corresponds to the annual production of milk proteins.
Kai Büll and his project colleagues add a component to the research project that is rare in food research: protein characterization. Plant research often looks at protein molecules as particles and not at the hundreds of individual amino acid building blocks. The SEEDFOOD team does the opposite. They are trying to use techniques from biomedical research to study the two dominant proteins from the seeds of the rape plant to understand their properties. By knowing the properties of the proteins, the researchers hope to develop a method that makes it possible, without the use of chemicals, to design the protein molecules so that they become more usable in food production.
“We can change the release of rape protein from the seeds to avoid bitter flavors and without using chemicals. The goal is to change the properties of the proteins so they can ultimately be included in products such as tasty yogurts or protein drinks,” explained Kai Büll.
Innovation and the desire to experiment are among the cornerstones of Kai Büll’s research. He consequently has a unique ability to develop new insights by combining different theories and methods to benefit his research. This has also led him from his original field of research in biomedicine to crop science, where his methods are pioneering.
Since joining DTU in 2019, Kai Büll has built up a thriving research group. He has raised over DKK40 million (US$5.72 million) in external funding and started collaborations with several academic groups and companies. Most recently, he has received an ERC Consolidator grant and the Ministry of Higher Education and Science’s prestigious EliteForsk award for his research into Parkinson’s disease.
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