‘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”.