Understanding food protein at heart of science prize

A world-renowned contribution to the understanding of food protein has led to Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh together being awarded this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Prize – New Zealand’s most valuable award for scientific achievement.

The $500,000 award goes to the two who are Massey University food scientists and co-directors of the Riddet Institute, a centre of research excellence led from the Manawatū campus that focuses on food and health innovation.

Their contribution to food protein science is world-renowned. Singh’s expertise is in food protein structures and how they interact in food systems while Moughan’s work focuses on how proteins are broken down and absorbed in the digestive system and the resulting physiological benefits.

“It’s a marriage made in heaven,” says Moughan. Between us we cover the whole spectrum of food protein science, which is rare worldwide.”

Examples of innovation from their work include the development of a highly effective probiotic, ProBioLife, establishing the health benefits of kiwifruit which is giving Zespri an edge globally and a technology that allows high doses of fish-oil-dervied Omega-3 fatty acids to be added to food products without a fishy smell and after taste.

A recent focus has been developing a novel process to isolate proteins and peptides in low cost meat products and use them in a food product that has been shown to have health benefits for older people. The product is being commercialised by a New Zealand meat company.

The two scientists teamed up more than a decade ago to establish the Riddet Institute as a world-leading centre for food science research. Since 2003, the Institute has secured over $40 million in research funding and used it to carry out fundamental and strategic research and apply the knowledge to create new food products, processes and systems. The Institute has also trained 80 postgraduate scholars and 30 postdoctoral fellows.

“A lot of new ideas and ways of thinking are generated at the Riddet Institute and graduates take that knowledge out into industry,” says Singh.

In addition, the Institute has established Riddet Foodlink, a network of more than 100 companies interested in food innovation and research that work with Riddet Institute researchers.

The winning team plans to use $400,000 of the prize money for on-going research to commercialise discoveries made at the Riddet Institute. “We have a lot of bright minds that come up with really good ideas,” says Singh, adding that the prize money will allow the Institute to screen those ideas and take the most promising through to the next stage.

Moughan says he and Singh are honoured to have won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize and see it as recognition that science and technology is a key to New Zealand’s future. “Food is New Zealand’s biggest industry and there is great opportunity to leverage it further, through advanced scientific understanding, to grow the economy and improve our standard of living. We are privileged to be at the heart of that opportunity.”

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