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Biopolymers To Deliver Healthier Foods

Biopolymers To Deliver Healthier Foods

Technology that can make the leap from killing grass grubs to keeping human stomachs healthy has arrived at the Waikato Innovation Park. Biotechnology company EnCoate is moving rapidly towards commercialising technology initially used to help kill off grass grub in New Zealand pastures.

The company is owned by Ballance Agri-Nutrients, AgResearch and BioPacificVentures.

EnCoate is building on its original technology for bio-insecticides that uses bio-polymers to encase the naturally occurring bacteria that kills grass grub. The naturally occurring bacteria, known as serratia were isolated by researchers bio-prospecting.

However the trick was to try and protect it in such a way the bacteria would remain robust in the tough environment of the paddock.

Further research saw the scientists develop bio-polymers, or strings of molecules attached in long chains. These could essentially be wrapped around the bacteria, to keep it active once in the field.

“As a means of controlling the delivery of the naturally occurring insecticide it was excellent. It meant we could offer a real alternative to chemical coatings for grass grub control,” says Simon Yarrow.

Scientists soon realised the huge potential the technology had for other applications in the global food business, particularly for coating unstable ingredients.

Simon Yarrow says while the bio-polymer components are “off the shelf” ingredients, it is the intellectual property and research ability the company has that put it in a niche of its own.

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EnCoate is focussing on pro-biotics, bacteria that deliver positive benefits to human and animal gut function, repairing it after illness, or helping to maintain optimal function. The problem with adding pro-biotics to most food products is the difficulties involved in stabilising the bacteria across various food types.

The pro-biotic bacteria prefer the cooler nature of yoghurt drinks. This explains why the chiller cabinet of the dairy category is one of the few areas pro-biotic products can be found at present.

However Simon Yarrow says the company is within a year of offering an encapsulated pro-biotic ingredient suitable for dry products like energy bars or cereals.

The work has not been without its challenges. Pro-biotics tend to have limited shelf life, and offering them in a product with extended shelf life requires long term testing on stability and ability to maintain effectiveness.

Yarrow admits the devil is also in the detail for his company because of the huge variation in types of pro-biotic bacteria required, and individual product specifications.

“It is a product that has to be capable of forming part of their production process, and fitting in with the nature of the product.”

“The environment for probiotic bacteria in a muesli bar for example is damper and significantly different from that in a breakfast cereal, and we have to develop the coated bacteria accordingly.”

He says potential also exists in the stock food market. At present poultry and pork producers rely on antibiotics to counter infections in densely populated rearing units, but probiotics could prove a drug free option.

Infant nutrition with its extremely high quality specifications and nutritional requirements offers an ideal avenue for the EnCoate technology. The company is in discussions on how the bio-polymer technology can be incorporated into powders.

Potential is also there for pet owners that want to keep pets in optimal condition.

The key to developing a successful ingredient like the bio-polymer probiotic business is building close relationships with manufacturers that have very specific, unique requirements depending on the product, says Simon Yarrow.

He says this makes the move to put the business arm of EnCoate in the Waikato Innovation Park a natural one for a company with a strong research arm remaining in AgResearch Lincoln.


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