This interview is part of a series which highlights the work of various individuals and organizations within the Kernza® network. Through these interviews, we aim to share and celebrate that there is a large and ever-changing ecosystem that moves Kernza® perennial grain forward. If you would like your organization’s work to be featured in an interview, please email Sophia Skelly. To learn more about the Kernza® network, visit our directory.
Can you introduce yourself and tell me a little about your research with Kernza®?
My name is Radhika Bharathi and I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. I have a bachelor’s in chemical technology and then my master’s right now is Food Science with a focus on cereal chemistry, so this automatically got me into thinking about food processing opportunities for Kernza® to be commercialized. My advisor George had been working with Forever Green before I started in his lab. He had done some projects with them before and I think I met Kernza® just by destiny. He gave the project to me. But overall, I’ve personally been very interested in sustainability ever since I was a child. I’m also a vegetarian and a big follower of recycling and zero waste lifestyle. So I think that Kernza® and what it stands for fits very well with my values and I feel very fortunate to be associated with sustainability, the science that motivates me to study further. I’m excited to be studying sustainability in food systems. Moving on in my career, I want to contribute towards fields that develop sustainable, healthy food products.
Did you first hear about Kernza® from your advisor?
Yes, I heard about it through my advisor. And to be more specific, I think the first time I actually learnt about Kernza® in detail was from a graduate student in a seminar in my department. He was working on storage stability of Kernza®. He basically made tortillas and was describing qualitative stable analysis done for Kernza® and how storage stability and the addition of bran affects Kernza®’s taste or the taste of tortillas made from Kernza® flour.
So that is when I really understood, oh my God, there are so many aspects to Kernza® and there is so much that can be done with this valuable crop!
Can you talk a little bit about tempering and the different intricacies of your work for people who may not be familiar with how food science works?
Yes, for sure. So my project is about tempering Intermediate Wheatgrass, or Kernza®. So what tempering basically means is that before milling, you add a certain amount of water and that moisture seeps to different layers in the grain and it softens the endosperm and it toughens the bran. So imagine peeling off an orange: the harder the skin, the easier it is to peel it off. Basically, adding moisture toughens the outer bran so it facilitates better separation of the inner endosperm from the outer bran. At the end of all of this you get better, refined flour.
So the other question I often get is: “OK, but why do you want to refine Kernza® if all the goodness lies in the bran?” And the answer is that bran is good for health but when it comes to functionality, bran particles are notorious in the sense that they steal water from gluten. So they kind of hinder gluten formation. And my colleagues at the University of Minnesota from a different lab did an experiment and they used dough conditioners to enhance properties of bread made from Kernza® They noticed that the effects of dough conditioners were the best when Bran was removed. They also made bread by changing the percent of bran in Kernza®. For example, they made breads with 0, 50, and 100 % bran.
They noticed that the breads that had zero percent bran had the highest scores in “low volume” and the best physical attributes for bread. So all of their previous work indicated that refining is a viable processing option in terms of functionality for Kernza® and bread is the most common model system or the most common cereal product that all consumers eat. And if Kernza® were to become a mainstream ingredient, we would typically want Kernza® to perform well in a bread model system. And we think that that is possible by refining Kernza®.
So essentially, refining helps, and you refine better by tempering. And that is why we talk about tempering. And a little more background is that all traditional grains–wheat, for example–have a tempering condition established. Nothing like that has been established yet for Kernza®. And that is why I’m trying to optimize tempering conditions for Kernza®.
Can you talk a little bit more about the gluten? Once Kernza® is tempered, is it able to build stronger gluten?
Yes, it is. That has been one of the most exciting results from my studies. If we compare a non-tempered control to a tempered flour, we see that due to tempering, we are effectively removing all of the bran. This means the gluten proteins have less competition and it gives rise to stronger gluten networks in tempered flours. And we’ve actually even analyzed it quantitatively using a GlutoPeak. That’s the machine that we use to measure gluten aggregation. And we found that tempering is facilitating better gluten network development in Kernza® flours.
How does that machine work?
That machine is super cool. It’s a standard rapid test machine that is used in the cereal field to measure gluten aggregation. And in the machine, you basically add about eight grams of flour, depending on the moisture content. You first take the moisture content, you enter it in the machine and it’ll tell you to add somewhere around eight to 10 grams of flour and then you add calcium chloride.
So if you were to do this in your house, you would take flour, you would add water and then you would knead the dough. So the machine does something similar. But instead of using water, you add calcium chloride because calcium ions help in stabilizing the gluten network. Then, you put it in a container, you add the flour, you add calcium chloride, and then the machine has a paddle that goes inside the container and it uses sheer force to knead the dough.
And then you get a graph! So as gluten is being formed, the machine measures the sheer force and you get an increasing graph. But when the graph reaches the maximum, the gluten in the dough has been formed to the maximum, but then the machine still keeps mixing. So then, the sheer force of the machine exceeds the strength of the gluten and it starts breaking the gluten bonds and you get a downward fall.
Have you been involved with the Cooking with Kernza® civic science work? To what extent does your research connect with folks who are working on recipe development?
I know that my advisor collaborates with Beth Dooley and they talk about future product development opportunities for Kernza®. I personally haven’t been involved in any kind of education for Kernza® crops. But I have been in touch with Connie and actually, this summer, I worked with her as an “Applied Research and Marketing Intern.” It was on a volunteer basis but I learned some really cool things and that was a very good exposure to the civic engagement side of Kernza® for me. In that internship, I studied consumers’ attitudes towards sustainable products and how sustainability is an upcoming trend in the food industry. We also spoke about having spec sheets for Kernza® which are now on the Kernza® website. They were put together by AURI but I was helping Connie review it and just to go through and see if everything had been included.
Many civic science participants noted that the Kernza® flour didn’t rise as well as other flours. Is that related to tempering?
I feel like tempering will definitely help you to bake better-looking bread in terms of loaf volume and all of that. But Kernza® inherently has a different gluten profile compared to wheat. So in order to have a great-looking bread, you have to have two components of gluten: one is called glutenin and one is called gliadin. Glutenins are the molecules that give you the dough-raising properties and gliadin give you the elasticity. So, Kernza® has a lot of gliadin but has less glutenin. So, breads made with Kernza® don’t rise. I think that is one of the reasons Kernza® bread is different from wheat bread. The other thing that I have observed is that Kernza® is very sticky and it kind of reminds me of rye. It is from the same family as rye, so Kernza® is a cousin to wheat and rye. And I feel like it’s somewhere in-between. It has properties of wheat and properties of rye. And rye dough is supposedly very sticky. It also has less gluten-forming proteins, similar to Kernza®. The fiber in rye is what makes it sticky. But it is also what gives rye bread its unique structure and stability. And I’ve been reading into this and I feel like somehow, Kernza® does have some properties of rye so I’m interested to study the dietary fiber in Kernza® and see if that contributes to the structure and stability in Kernza®. That’s a lot of speculation; I’m not sure if it does or it doesn’t until we test it.
Yes, there were many civic science participants who compared it to rye as well. They also compared it to wheat bran.
Yeah, it’s very sticky. I can see why people have complaints about workability around Kernza®. We haven’t yet really narrowed down to what exactly makes Kernza® dough sticky. Is it the fiber? Are we adding too much water? Like, what exactly is going on that makes Kernza® dough very sticky and difficult to work with? We haven’t gotten to that yet but hopefully in the next few stages of my research, I should be able to figure that out!
What is your favorite part of researching Kernza®?
My favorite part about researching Kernza® is the endless opportunities we have with this awesome perennial grain. I feel like Kernza® is the new kid on the block and there are so many cereal processing technologies that you could use to improve Kernza®’s functionality and tempering is just one of them. There are other things like sprouting. I know my advisor George is also working on that but he’s looking into optimizing sprouting conditions and sprouting as a technique is supposed to make bread healthier because it makes nutrients more bioavailable.
The other thing is puffing. And all of these other cereal processing technologies that exist and can be applied to Kernza® are very exciting because they help to expand Kernza®’s portfolio in different products. So beyond bread, can we have popped Kernza®? Puffed Kernza®? Kernza® waffles? Kernza® muffins? I find that very exciting because there is so much we can do with this grain and there’s so much not yet explored. This is especially true when it comes to nutrition. We know that Kernza® has higher antioxidants but it would be cool to see if they are equally absorbed in the body like wheat–maybe they’re better absorbed! There’s so much left and I feel like it’s a white canvas and you can do so many things.
The other thing that really excites me is whenever I present my research–whether it be a conference, a seminar, or even when I talk about Kernza® to my friends–I get endless questions and there’s so much excitement.
I recently presented at a conference, and the questions I got are less technical and more about consumer enthusiasm or taste, etc. I truly enjoy applied food science research and Kernza® fits into that perfectly. It’s a good blend of applied and analytical chemistry and product development opportunities. It gives you a satisfaction of working on something you can directly present to the consumer. I’ve worked on previous projects, especially with chemistry in my undergrad where I would present and people would just be like: why does it matter? It’s very difficult to explain science to a diverse audience but I feel like every time I do that with Kernza®, it connects with people. They understand it and they’re excited to try it as a new grain.
What is your favorite thing to cook with Kernza®?
Pancakes! I first tried Kernza® pancakes at Birchwood Cafe and I absolutely loved them. They have a very unique, earthy, but also nutty, grassy flavor. And then I recently tried making my own pancakes at home. It was a 50/50 mix of Kernza® and whole wheat and they turned out to be delicious.
Do you have any specific plans or aspirations related to Kernza® going forward?
My immediate goal postgraduate school is to work in product development positions in the food industry to gain more exposure and experience in that area. In the long run, it is my dream to start my own company/start-up manufacturing nutritious, healthy and sustainable cereal-based products from climate-friendly grains such as Kernza®!
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share?
I took part in a “lightning talk competition” on sustainability and the environment at our university and I won the first prize for my lightning talk on Kernza®! You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgp4NBIpdrg (timestap 12:25)
The other thing is that I recently reached out to Connie because I was taking part in a product development competition by the American Society of Baking and their theme for this year is using upcycled ingredients and Connie got me in touch with someone who could get me spent Kernza® grain so that was really exciting! We made these biscuits with the spent Kernza®, spent brewing grains, and spent bread scraps flour. It is still in the very initial phases of product development. We are going to submit our report on November 15th. Fingers crossed we make it to the top three!