Vasanthan, Dr. Thava And Dr. Feral Temelli

2005 Winner: Innovation In Agricultural Science Sponsored By Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc.

Harnessing The Health Benefits Of Beta-Glucan

Two University of Alberta researchers have developed an innovative technology for concentrating cholesterol-lowering fiber from oats and barley that could save millions in health care costs and open new markets for Alberta’s grain growers.

Beta-glucan, a naturally occurring soluble fiber, is known to lower cholesterol. However, there has been no cost-effective way to extract it from oats or barley without destroying its health benefits. Drs. Thava Vasanthan and Feral Temelli, professors in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, solved the problem with a fractionation process that produces high-quality beta-glucan that can be priced low enough for sale as a dietary supplement or as an ingredient to make food healthier.

Process of Elimination

Beta-glucan is difficult to extract because it is attached to other grain components such as starch and proteins. Traditional extraction processes degrade the structure of the beta-glucan and therefore diminish its health benefits. Instead of extracting beta-glucan, the U of A researchers’ process removes the other compounds and leaves the beta-glucan behind. The resulting concentrate, trademarked as Viscofiber®, is by far the highest quality beta-glucan concentrate available. Viscofiber®’s superiority is due to its viscosity, or thickness, and its high concentration. This makes it possible for food companies to add smaller volumes of beta-glucan to their products to achieve the desired health benefits. Normally, a person would have to consume large volumes of oat bran or flour (added to food) to gain similar health benefits.

Looking Forward

Large-scale clinical trials are underway to provide solid, scientific evidence of Viscofiber®’s cholesterol-lowering effects. The next step will be to submit the results to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada for approval to make health claims on food labels. Drs. Vasanthan and Temelli formed a University of Alberta spin-off company, Cevena Bioproducts Inc., in 2002 to develop and commercialize their technology. The company has attracted $12 million in investment to date and plans to construct a plant in 2007. Viscofiber® creates a tremendous opportunity for Alberta’s value-added agriculture industry. The total world market for beta-glucan dietary supplements and food ingredients is estimated at $505 million.

Alberta produces six million tonnes of barley and one million tonnes of oats annually. Currently, these crops are mainly sold as feed. Drs. Vasanthan and Temelli’s technology will make it possible to manufacture a wide range of new health-promoting products such as beverages, bars and snacks using Alberta-grown grains as raw materials.