U of S researchers bark up a new money tree

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Pulse crops could mean big business for Saskatchewan, Canada

With nearly a half-million dollars in awards backing their work, Lynn Weber and Jaswant Singh’s research into pet food might soon create a healthier life for your cats and dogs — and a healthier economy for Saskatchewan.

University of Saskatchewan researchers Weber and Singh have been studying the benefits of using pulse crops, a type of grain legume which includes dry peas, chickpeas and lentils, in food products for household pets. The duo has been allotted a total of $429,000 in funding, including the Jan. 20 announcement of $172,000 from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to be put toward a high-resolution ultrasound microscope that Weber believes will help reap new yields in their study.

“Getting this ultrasound equipment is perfect timing because we’ve kind of done all the preliminaries and done the development of the diets and testing how they work in single feedings,” said Weber. “Now we’re just about to go into the long-term feeding studies in the dogs, cats and fish.”

As principal investigator, Weber, an associate professor in veterinary biosciences at the U of S, has been working alongside her co-investigator Singh in the ongoing three-year study into the use of lentils, peas and fava beans in pet food products in favour of more traditional crop choices such as rice or corn. Scientific backing for the theoretical health benefits of pulse crops could mean big business for Saskatchewan, which according to a 2011 Statistics Canada survey made up 79.3 per cent of Canada’s pulse crops farmland. With tightening stipends on the export of alternative ingredient choices due to regulations on genetically modified organisms, pulse crops begin to look more enticing for food manufacturers.

“Basically, in North America no corn is considered to be free from genetic contamination from GMO genes just because of the way it pollinates,” Weber said. “Places like Japan and Europe, which have bans on GMO products, will not buy anything that contains corn from North America — which includes pet food.

“On the other hand, there are no genetically modified pulses.”

In the same 2011 survey, Canada ranked as first in both lentil and dry pea production, making the economic growth potential for pulse crops huge.

Weber listed issues such as corn’s increased cost due to its use in fuel products and drought in the United States as other circumstances which are making pulse crops increasingly attractive.

“If you can throw on top of that the claim, with scientific data to support, that using [pulses] in pet food makes a healthier pet food — now we’ve just expanded our market for pet foods not just in North America, based on the health claim, but now we can also start exporting to Europe and Japan and places like that,” Weber said. “It’s very huge.”

The main factors that Weber and Singh are looking to confirm with their research are the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits associated with pulse crops. While their prior work in the area showed positive results, there was ultimately too much room for error given the equipment they had to work with. Weber estimated the new ultrasound microscope would be 100–500 times more efficient than even the best human machine.

“If we can even just focus on the metabolic and cardiovascular benefits right now and show that pulses are as good as or better than corn,” Weber said. “That’s all we have to achieve because then we’ve got marketing application.”

Though things are looking up for Weber and the rest of the team, which includes fellow researchers Murray Drew and Matthew Loewen, there have been issues standing in the way of their progress. With a light tone, she outlined the trouble they have run into with some of their fussier feline test subjects.

“Well first of all we made one batch of test diet and — while the beagles gobbled it up — the cats absolutely hated it. They would rather starve themselves than eat it. So then we did a bit of investigating and we found out an industry standard in pet food is to coat the outside of all cat foods with this stuff called palatant. The most common one is hydrolyzed beef liver,” Weber said. “As long as the outside of the cat pellet, the dry pellet, smells and tastes like beef liver, it doesn’t matter what’s inside.”

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