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Fashionable Food

To be a trendy 21st century food product, touting vitamins and minerals alone won’t cut it. Chances are better if heart- healthy, anti-oxidant, cholesterol-lowering or anti-aging is in your job description. A food crop’s hidden components – beta glucans, lysine, folic acid – get the market’s attention.

To uncover special qualities and opportunities for Minnesota crops, AURI is examining the functional traits and production trends of 11 grains. Some crops, such as wild rice, dry edible beans and oats, do not currently have a major presence in the state. But their exceptional attributes may be useful to highly- profitable functional food and nutraceutical markets.

Commodity groups are keenly interested in nontraditional markets. For example, the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, which represents Minnesota and North Dakota growers, is sponsoring conferences on health food, pharmaceutical and industrial product developments (see accompanying story, “Be’an smart”on page 8). Studies show folate in beans can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Protein extracts and dietary fiber from beans can be used as nutraceutical ingredients in breakfast and snack foods.

Researchers are also probing wild rice traits. In the mid-1990s, an AURI study confirmed that wild rice has anti-oxidant properties that can extend meat’s freezer life. “That study was the precursor to all of the meat products you now see with wild rice,” such as brats, burgers, sausages and other ground-meat products, says Beth Nelson, president of the Minnesota Wild Rice Council, a study co-sponsor.

“Wild rice keeps products fresher longer and, if you’re using a dryer meat, like buffalo or venison, wild rice adds moisture,” Nelson says. The council is looking at other product blends, but some combinations are challenging: “If you add wild rice to products with sugar, it can pull moisture, but we have been experimenting with it,” Nelson says.

Research and development is crucial to jumpstart a stagnant wild rice market, Nelson says. “We’re not seeing (market) decreases but the growth is very slow.”

Wild rice was highly profitable when it was first cultivated in the 1950s; consumers were already accustomed to paying high prices for hand-harvested grain. But as yields improved and acreage climbed, prices leveled off. Recent economic strains on gourmet food and gift markets have not helped. But the council is hoping more studies on wild rice’s functional or medicinal traits will pay off. “It’s big stuff,” Nelson says. “There is a lot of potential in the area of nutrition.”

Wild rice may also benefit skin care. Dawn Thiel of Minneapolis, who founded Botanicare Inc. in 1995, is using wild rice in her Northwoods Blend® shampoos, lotions, soaps and body wash. Her cosmetics, available through mail order or Twin Cities and northern Minnesota specialty shops, feature all-natural ingredients, no animal products and plant materials indigenous to Minnesota such as cranberries and wild rice. Besides antioxidants, wild rice is a good source of protein that “has conditioning and strengthening properties that stay behind after rinsing and give products a nice feel on the hair and skin,” Thiel says. She also uses ground wild rice as an exfoliant in soaps.

“The functional attributes of many traditional foods are being discovered,” leading to new product developments, says AURI scientist Charan Wadhawan. But to confirm a food’s benefits “a large body of scientific research is needed.” AURI’s study will help grower groups identify research that could lead to high-value products. The intent is to “help growers diversify, yield higher returns and, of course, promote consumer wellness through food.” Beside wild rice, dry edible beans and oats featured in this section, other crops investigated include amaranth, canola, flax, cuphea, buckwheat, barley, wheat and sunflower.