Prof Rachel Burton - Looking for good protein and great flavour

Professor Rachel Burton

Researchers from the University of Nottingham and University of Adelaide have joined forces to launch a new International Flavour Research Centre (IFRC) to improve the taste of sustainable, healthy, plant-based food and ingredients. 

Professor Rachel Burton is excited to be involved with the facility as the Head of Department of Food Science at the University of Adelaide, to merge her knowledge on plants as food crops with everything flavour. Academic lead for the International Flavour Research Centre is Professor Ian Fisk (Professor of Flavour Chemistry), with joint positions at both the University of Nottingham and the University of Adelaide, working closely with University of Adelaide’s Professor Rachel Burton and A/Professor Sue Bastian. Rachel’s background is in designing plant cellular materials for structural design of foods and Sue’s expertise is in the sensory and consumer science and explaining the molecular drivers of sensory perception. The partnership between Nottingham, Adelaide and major industry partner v2food promises to find global solutions to feed the world in a more sustainable, plant-based, way. V2food is an Australian company producing plant-based meat replacements, mainly using soy as basis for their burgers, mince and sausages. Rachel says “We would like to replace soy though, as we can’t grow it easily in most parts of Australia”. Taking the entire production chain into account for the sustainability aspects, it would be better to take a look at available Australian grown crop as alternatives.

There is a broader application than just finding new products to use as plant-based protein, and flavour will have the leading role in the new IFRC. “Flavour is such a vastly important thing about food, it affects everything, and the proposed research at this facility can really drive our understanding of many aspects of this,” according to Rachel. Questions arise when replacing unhealthy flavour-makers such as fat, sugar and salt or when introducing new food products. What are potential off-flavours to tackle in plant-based protein sources and do people enjoy eating things like hemp seeds and faba beans?

As Rachel’s research group is already working on alternative food crops, she thinks hemp seeds could be promising candidates, but more work is needed to get them to a proper product stage. 

"Some of the crops I’m working with do have very good protein profiles. Hemp seed for example has got amazing protein levels, almost as good as soy, and great oil levels, without any starch. I am very keen to get that promoted as a good protein source, but growing and processing of hemp seeds is still very difficult."Professor Rachel Burton

The broad range of research at the new centre suits Rachel’s profile very well, with her own background including a wide variety of scientific endeavours. She describes her scientific career pathway as a comedy of errors, with fortunate events leading to research work, a PhD position and finally a post-doc role in Adelaide. Fresh out of high school she took up a research officer job at Rothamsted experimental station, after not getting enrolled at her university of choice and taking an unplanned gap-year. Rachel says “it was the best year of my life, and I was absolutely hooked on science after that”. Medical microbiology, work on snapdragon flowers, and now research in alternative food crops such as hemp and psyllium filled out her research career and the curiosity she harboured as a young student is nowhere near completed yet. She is also interested in potential work on native Australian foods: “it would be very interesting to see what new things we can do with the IFRC on bush tucker, and really play with true Australian products.”

More information on the IFRC can be found in the news story at the University of Adelaide newsroom

Written by Lieke van der Hulst, 5/11/2021