Collaborative research work on sago signifies nation’s mega biodiversity and also the potential hidden in underutilised crops
THE vast diversity of plants in Malaysia holds abundant opportunities for the discovery of new functional ingredients for ‘supercharged’ food and beverages.
According to Associate Prof Dr Shahrul Razid Sarbini of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) Bintulu Campus, the term ‘supercharged’ connotes the ‘upgraded quality’ of a food or beverage item following the addition of any functional ingredient.
Explaining this background, he said the ‘functional food’ market emerged in Japan in the 1980s following the plan by its government to improve the health of the nation’s ageing population.
Adding on, he said the term ‘functional food’ appeared in an article entitled ‘Japan explores the boundary between food and medicine’, which was published on the international weekly journal of science ‘Nature’ on July 15, 1993 (https://rdcu.be/cxjew).
“From then on, the Japanese have venture into the functional food industry by labelling such products as FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses),” Dr Shahrul told thesundaypost, adding that in today’s market, this specific industry is believed to hold a market demand worth US$258.8 billion (over RM1 trillion).
According to the researcher, within the market there is a ‘growing thirst’ for the functional beverages segment, which also covers ‘supercharged’ drinks that consist of ‘traditionally-functional beverages made even more functional through fortification with science-backed ingredients such as herbs, probiotics and prebiotics’.
“Prebiotics are amongst the most common ingredients; other examples include fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS) and inulin, now abundantly found in milk formula for infants,” he said, pointing out that these ingredients were mostly of Western origin, but his research had uncovered a local major source of the same fibre.
“Sago (Metroxylon sagu) is a perfect example of an underutilised crop that is ‘a hidden wealth source’ and from the research, it indicates that sago starch is a potential source of prebiotics,” said Dr Shahrul, who is UPM Bintulu director.
The research group led by him, which also consisted of Siti Aisyah Mohd Zaman and Awang Zulfikar Rizal Awang Seruji of CRAUN Research Sdn Bhd, filed a patent for a novel modification method set to improve the starch nutritional profile as prebiotics.
“The product, which can be applied in food or beverages, has undergone animal (mice) in vivo studies, demonstrating potential in tackling obesity and improving the gut health via the increment of beneficial microbiota,” he added.
The patented product, named ‘Sago Prebiotic’, clinched the Gold Award at the International Conference and Exposition on Inventions Malaysia (PECIPTA) 2019, and represented Malaysia at the Global Intellectual Property Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest – Asean Chapter (IPIEC) also in 2019.
Dr Shahrul’s team also took part in the Malaysia Technological Expo (MTE) in March this year, where they took home the ‘Merit Award’.
“This collaborative research represents just the tip of the iceberg of our potential in the innovation of functional food.
“Our country’s mega biodiversity may unearth more possibilities that could be sustainably utilised for the benefit of mankind.
“We should take a second look at our underutilised crops, which are abundant and readily available, as potential sources of functional ingredients for food and beverages,” he said.
More about sago prebiotic
According to Dr Shahrul, sago prebiotic is a functional food, developed by slightly modifying the sago starch based on a method permitted by the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA).
“When tested pre-clinically in collaboration with the Institute for Medical Research Malaysia, we found out that sago prebiotic could increase the (number of) good bacteria and reduce the bad ones in our gut – an effect that’s somewhat similar to those of some well-known cultured drinks,” he said.
Beyond being used in beverages, Dr Shahrul said the sago prebiotic, due to its powder form, could be incorporated into lots of food, local and international, such as breads, ‘roti canai’ and noodles.
Nonetheless, he also pointed out in Sarawak, the cultivation of sago palm trees – or ‘rumbia’, as they are locally known – is still very much done in a non-plantation setting, adding that the farmers – or more specifically, the smallholders – are actually the ones having the most shareholding of this sector.
“A 10-year study (2017 data) has shown that 46,678 hectares of land for ‘rumbia’ cultivation are occupied by smallholders, and only 4,750 hectares are consisting of mini-estates.
“These figures show the effect of sago market growth, majorly impacting the farmers.
“Our product, sago prebiotic, is a way to increase the demand and boost the market.
“This prebiotic from sago is the first-ever locally sourced prebiotic where other of-the-like in the market are sourced from the Western region,” added Dr Shahrul.
The participation of sago prebiotic in the prebiotic market in 2020 was valued at US$8.95 billion (over RM37 billion) and in this regard, the researcher was confident that it would have positive impact on local sago farmers.
Potential of herbs
Herbs stand as a strong candidate as potential functional ingredients for beverages.
In this respect, Dr Shahrul acknowledged that in Malaysia, varieties such as ‘Tongkat Ali’ (Eurycoma longifolia) and ‘Kacip Fatimah’ (Labisia pumila Benth) had long been incorporated in formulated coffee, tea and other beverage products.
“Other herbs like ‘pegaga’ (Centella asiatica) and ginkgo leaf, both rich in antioxidants, have been heavily marketed as having great health benefits.”
Additionally, he said spices had also been garnering the attention of a niche consumer group looking for a depth in coffee and tea flavours, pointing out cinnamon as amongst the popular ones.
“It seems like some coffee brands are also following the footsteps of those coming out with probiotics, which is basically milk with the incorporation of live microorganisms.”
‘To nourish and enhance’
According to Dr Shahrul, a way to maintain a healthy diet is through the consumption of functional food, which goes beyond providing nutrients and energy to the body; moreover, it can also serve to modulate and enhance certain physiological responses.
A recent paper by Kerry Group, he said, highlighted the demand on ‘the functional beverage segment under the functional food umbrella’.
“The demand is mostly driven by the growing consumer’s interest in immunity-modulation through (the intake of) nutritional drinks.
“Drinks are often the driver of innovation, as consumers are more likely to experiment with beverages than with food.”
Taking this into view, Dr Shahrul believed that the functional beverage industry could also act as an advocate for functional food.
“Slightly different from the diverse functional food market, the functional drinks market appears to be targeting the traditionally-functional beverages,” he said, observing that such trend is even more apparent in the current climate, where the Covid-19 pandemic has made people to become more health-conscious.
Dr Shahrul believed that many had been taking a more active approach in controlling what they could to reduce the risk of catching the coronavirus.
“Social distancing is still a must, but exercising and practising healthy diet habits are seen as added armours.
“Malaysians even made news when they topped the global polls on the highest likelihood of reporting weight loss during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
Being amongst the respondents in this survey, Malaysians believed that weight loss would result in lowering Covid-19 risks, he said.
“This is true, as reported by the US Centre for Disease Control (USCDC), where obesity-related conditions could make the effects of Covid-19 infection worse.
“The United Nations (UN) had issued a report about obesity increasing the risk of severe Covid-19 infection by seven-fold.
“This further supports the case that calls for lifestyle modifications, be they exercising or healthier dieting, in the battle against Covid-19.”
For any enquiries on sago prebiotic, Dr Shahrul can be contacted via [email protected]