Healthier oils, plant-based protein, higher dietary fibre in carbohydrates… Wilmar reveals potential innovations from its new lab

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Singapore's Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat (centre) at the launch of the WIL@NUS lab.
Singapore's Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat (centre) at the launch of the WIL@NUS lab.

Related tags reformulation Food Dietary fibre

Agribusiness giant Wilmar has opened a joint laboratory with National University of Singapore (NUS) to drive innovation in food technology and sustainable biochemicals.

Located at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, S$110 million has been pumped into the WIL@NUS laboratory which was launched one month ago.

The laboratory aims to address public health issues by developing healthier food. At the same time, it also seeks to produce chemical compounds in a cost-effective and sustainable way.

FoodNavigator-Asia​ recently interviewed Dr Rebecca Lian, distinguished fellow at Wilmar, who will helm the laboratory with associate professor Matthew Chang, director of the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation programme.

Through the interview, we look at some of the potential food innovations that will take place in the laboratory.

For a start, researchers will formulate healthier cooking oils that reduce cholesterol levels, in turn lowering the risk of developing chronic diseases, Dr Lian said.

Clinical trials will also be done to examine and improve the efficacy of the reformulated product.

Blending different types of oils is a potential reformulation method to make healthier oil, Dr Lian revealed.

“By blending, you can create oils that have the right fatty acid profile, and a higher level of vital nutrients (from different oil seeds),” ​she said.

Another possible approach is to do enzyme structuring of the oil that is targeted at, for instance, reducing the rate at which fats from oil is deposited in the liver, or producing fats that will carry fatty acids that are good for brain health.   

Besides healthier oil, the laboratory is also intending to reformulate Asian staple foods that are rich in carbohydrates.

Retaining dietary fibre

For example, the laboratory will look into ways of retaining dietary fibre in carbohydrates, such as researching the processing methods that can best retain dietary fibre.

Dietary fibre is an important component of our diet as it is able to slow down the rate at which starch is released, thus controlling blood glucose level.

“A good carbohydrate is thus one that comes with natural dietary fibres. Food with a high amount of dietary fibres usually have a low GI index,” ​Dr Lian said.

Foods high in dietary fibre are beans and nuts, such as black bean, red bean, and chickpeas.

The amount of dietary fibre in these ingredients is roughly four times higher than white rice, however, they are not commonly incorporated into the Asian diet.

She concluded that there is thus a need to incorporate natural dietary fibre into carbohydrates that make up the Asian diet.

Plant-based proteins

Plant-based proteins do not necessarily only come from raw vegetables.

Dr Lian shared that after going oil processing, the leftovers from oil seeds contain a large amount of fibre and plant-based protein, which could be added to food products.

“We want to look at how to recover plant protein after oil processing,” ​said Dr Lian.

“The protein can then be made into meat analogue and plant protein food that is relevant to the Asian cuisine.”

There are also plans to develop protein-rich food to help elderly to build muscle, she added.

Food as medicine

Dr Lian explained that many food staples are linked to the development of chronic diseases, such as high blood glucose, high blood lipids, diabetes and some types of cancer.

“Most of the chronic diseases we see in the world are all linked to macronutrients (i.e. staple food such as rice)… Macronutrients have a big part to play in the body’s metabolism and therefore the food industries have the responsibility to convert food to be healthier,”​ she said.

“The study of food and health is actually a very new concept, it is something that is taken seriously only in the last five to ten years. Previously people believe that it is the research on Drugs and pharmaceutical products that is going to work… Beyond that, most of the medical problems are mostly linked to food and lifestyle.”

There is currently a lack of research about how Asian diet affects health.

The lab will thus focus on Asian-centric studies to manage and prevent lifestyle-related diseases in Singapore and the region.

“At the end of the day, we want to know which type of oil, carbohydrates, and proteins are healthier.”

Other labs

Besides NUS, Wilmar had earlier established a food innovation laboratory in another Singapore educational institute at the Republic Polytechnic.

Officially launched two years ago, the Republic Polytechnic – Wilmar Innovation Centre built at a capital of S$27 million, is a laboratory that provides customer support, production of confectioneries, and producing small and fast prototyping.

On the other hand, the new WIL@NUS laboratory is different in that it contains more pilot plant equipment which can test if the mass production of innovation prototypes is possible, and address the challenges faced in scaling up production.

Commenting on the new Wilmar-NUS laboratory, Kuok Khoon Hong, chairman and CEO of Wilmar said that as a Singapore headquartered company, Wilmar is “very honoured to be able to leverage the world-class clinical research capabilities of NUS in this academic-industry collaboration.”

“We hope that this gathering of great minds will result in the development of new technologies that can enhance the quality of our food products and at the same time reduce our carbon footprint. This way, consumers worldwide will benefit.”

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye added that this is a “win-win partnership” that “combines NUS’ strong expertise in biomedical sciences and translational medicine with Wilmar’s rich industry experience and global networks to address two pressing real-world challenges – lifestyle related diseases and sustainable production of industrial chemicals.”

Within the first six months of this year, a number of global food giant have already opened new innovation centres in Singapore, including ADM​, Mondelēz ​, and Danone​, while Tate & Lyle​ had doubled the size of its Singapore laboratory and application centre.

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