Bakers Journal

Features Profiles
The Final Proof: Dr. Koushik Seetharaman


April 2, 2008
By Final Proof

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Industry research chair in cereal technology, Dr. Koushik  Seetharaman is leading innovative research initiatives in cereal grains in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.

Industry research chair in cereal technology, Dr. Koushik  Seetharaman is leading innovative research initiatives in cereal grains in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont. The position has been funded in part by a consortium of industry groups, the Ontario Cereals Industry Research Council (OCIRC).  Seetharaman has a master’s from Cornell University and a PhD in food science from Texas A & M University.  He also completed post-doctorate work at Iowa State University, was on faculty at Penn State and worked as a consultant to the cereals industry. With more than 20 years of experience in cereal research, and product and industry consulting, Seetharaman provides a breadth of experience for the baking sector. We caught up with Seetharaman after class (over a pint of fermented barley) to talk about the future directions of baking innovation.

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Dr. Koushik Seetharaman is the new industry research chair in cereal technology at the University of Guelph.

Your interest in cereals research goes back a long time.  What drew you to this area of research?
As a vegetarian I have been interested in cereals all my life, however, aside from my personal interest in grains, I am also fascinated by the complexity of grains in terms of nutrients, structure, disease resistance and genetic attributes. There are many opportunities in this area for value-added products that provide significant health benefits.

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Why is there a need for a research chair in cereals?
This position, similar to the one I had at Penn State, will help to drive cereal research in this region.  There are not many cereal research centres east of the Mississippi, and yet this is the region with the most consumers. In Canada, there are no cereal research centres east of Manitoba, but all cereal processors are in the East. What is needed is a high-calibre centre of quality cereals research to assist the innovative companies in this region.

For example, roughly 80 per cent of the wheat in Ontario is soft, which has implications for end use quality. Ontario food manufacturers and processors will now have local technical support for this type of wheat instead of having to go to Ohio, for example. We can assist the Ontario cereals industry in all matters related to cereals, including the pliability of dough referred to as “dough rheology” – this level of support is required to assist product developers in this area.

What exactly do you mean by “technical support” for wheat-based process foods?
The oven is like a “black box”: bakers know what goes into the oven and what comes out, but they don’t know what exactly goes on inside the oven at a molecular level. What goes on in the oven matters a great deal to the final product quality attributes. The baking industry needs to deconstruct the chemistry taking place in the oven in order to create new textures and flavours, and to bake with some degree of consistency and predictability. Experimentation is not enough. If you use different baking temperatures over the course of the baking process instead of just one, you will get a different texture.  You can also affect the glycemic index and the shelf-life by altering the baking temperature – same dough, different temperature gives you different bread. Bakers need to consider the process of baking, not just the input and output.

What other areas of innovation do you feel are important to the future of baking?  Nanotechnology?  Fortification?

The term nanotechnology is overused.  For me it doesn’t mean much, it’s only one component. And fortification is not innovation – there is nothing new in this area – we’ve covered the basics. In fact, research is showing that using whole grains is more nutritious than fortifying with the individual components of whole grains. 

Innovation happens at a molecular level, specifically, with the starch granule. Starch influences the properties of baked goods. And cornstarch does not behave the same way as wheat starch. We need to determine how the structure of starch can be modified to affect the end product. For example, long grain rice like basmati rice is never sticky but short grain rice like Chinese rice is always sticky. This phenomenon exists because of the differences in the configuration of the starch granule.

To prepare for innovation, bakers need to better understand the product they are making and selling. What do consumers like about the product, what do they want and what can bakers do to get it? Bakers cannot create products in a void; they need an understanding of the chemical process. If 100 pounds of wheat is not producing 100 pounds of product, you need to know why.

Innovation also means energy conservation. Energy is being wasted because of not just old ovens, but old oven technology. Heat efficiency is poor – we need more efficient ovens. There is a 20 to 30 per cent savings just by understanding how to make the ovens more efficient.

What type of product development ideas should bakers consider?

Product development ideas are not a problem – what we need is to better understand large-scale manufacturing and how to reduce waste by making better formulation changes, for example, to reduce trans fats. If you understand the product at a molecular level reformulation is much easier. For example, what holds things together? Just like cement holds bricks together, the sugar holds the sugar cookie together, gluten holds the bread together and starch holds the cake together. Once you understand what each component is doing to affect the final product you can make changes with consistent and predictable results. We also need to clean up the labels – if you do not know why and what each ingredient is doing in the product, get rid of it.

What is your area of research?
I am intrigued by the structure of starches in cereal and the ability to manipulate these structures to create healthier products with better glycemic responses. Lowering the glycemic index means that the starch is absorbed slowly and does not trigger a huge release in insulin. This modulating effect of low-GI products can help to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and other health risks. We are doing research in the area of slowly digestible starch – this product can lower the glycemic response of many types of baked products. For example, from low to high GI, we have insoluble fibre (wheat bran), soluble fibre (i.e., oat bran), slowly digestible starch and the rapidly digestible starch (i.e., rice or bread). This is an area that holds great promise for healthy cereal-based food choices.

What new regulations do you see for the baking industry in the future?
There are some potential changes to the regulations in the future. For example, there will be limits or a ban placed on acrylamide. This compound is a carcinogen, and is created when bread is allowed to brown. Chemically it is a reaction between an amino acid, asparagines, and the sugar, glucose. Reducing the temperature and/or asparagines reduces the amount of this compound. More research is needed in this area.

What is most exciting about your new position?
At a personal level, it is inspiring to collaborate with a new group of scientists in both nutrition and biochemistry, and the food manufacturers and processors within the cereals and baking industry. I am also really pleased to be able to bring new research and perspectives to century-old beliefs and practices to accelerate innovation in this area. Challenging old paradigms is the heart of innovation. I am grateful to have this opportunity.

Written by Donna Shaw, a food and nutrition marketing professional with a B.Sc. in Nutrition, and an MBA in Agribusiness.  


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