Functional food

| February 8, 2018

The saying ‘You are what you eat’ is at the core of the research by the Director of the Functional Grains Centre and Charles Sturt University Professor of Food Science, Chris Blanchard. He writes about innovative research to improve the health properties of the grains we eat.


Almost two out of three Australians are overweight or obese according to the latest health survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2015). Excess weight increases the risk of developing long-term health conditions like cardio vascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. We know that diet and exercise are central to combating this public health issue but changing eating habits is difficult.

So let’s take a look at some of the innovation that’s tackling the issue from a different angle – research to enhance the health benefits of the food we eat, specifically grains.

Research at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Functional Grains (FGC) at Charles Sturt University aims to identify new bioactive compounds in grains and to develop new functional foods that provide added health benefits by reducing risk of diseases, going beyond the basic nutritional function.

Research is showing that pulses like chickpeas and lentils are not only a nutritious and tasty food product but also have the potential to deliver significant health benefits. One study has demonstrated that extracts from pulses were able to interact with gene expression regulators in cells to turn off fat cell development in stem cells. Another found some remarkable anti-cancer properties of faba bean extracts. Other research has found that the protein content of mung beans can vary greatly depending on where the pulse is grown. That’s important for processors because protein is one of the things that makes us feel fuller for longer.

Think rice and you probably think of a steaming bowl of fluffy ‘white’ rice but it’s whole-grain coloured rice varieties that FGC researchers are interested in. The seed coats of coloured rice are rich in antioxidants and research is underway to test the role of these chemical compounds in reducing blood clotting, inflammation and chemical damage to cells in overweight or obese people and in those who have type 2 diabetes. There’s also some promising results from a study investigating the anti-cancer properties of these bioactive compounds found in coloured rice.

Still with rice, research is also focused on the GI (glycaemic index). You’ve probably seen low-GI used in advertising and in food labelling. GI is a way to rate how quickly the carbohydrates raise the glucose level of the blood. One of our researchers has found that the way rice is processed influences the GI. Another has developed a way to quickly screen new varieties for GI, which means the rice breeders can focus on getting the low-GI varieties to the growers, and your dinner plate more quickly.

The link between paddock, processor and plate is important. Consumer demand for healthier food products is driving innovation and the development of new functional food products. This in turn can increase the demand and value for the grain that is grown by our farmers.

PhD candidates Ms Shiwangni Rao and Ms Esther Callcott in the laboratory, working with the coloured rice and extract.

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Chris Blanchard

Professor Chris Blanchard is the Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Functional Grains (Functional Grains Centre), administered by Charles Sturt University and is an initiative of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation. Professor Blanchard is also the leader of the grain and meat quality research pathway at the Graham Centre.

One Comment

  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    February 24, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    As a person who has eaten meat at least once a day for the past seventy-odd years and who is now living on borrowed time, I am interested in what you have to say. Pulses I know about, but coloured rice? I would appreciate a bit more detail on that score with some suggestions regarding where to find more information. When it comes to the whole area of pulses, sprouting seeds and grasses there are a lot of well-meaning twits out there eager to share their ideas.