Included in the most recent provincial budget announcement is a very promising opportunity for research at McGill. The Quebec government has allocated $1 million per year for the next five years to create the McGill Agrifood Innovation Network (MAIN).
This network initiative will be led by the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in conjunction with Conseil de la transformation alimentaire du Québec (CTAQ) and Saint-Hyacinthe Food Research and Development Centre (CRDA), as well as other universities. The McGill University Business Engagement Centre (MUBEC) also contributed to getting this network in motion, as the opportunities for growth in agribusiness in Quebec are on the rise.
McGill has been known to be a strong research university. Pairing these strengths with agribusiness policies in government and industry could lead to great advancements in agribusiness as well as increasing research opportunities at McGill.
When producing food on an industrial scale, there is a tremendous amount of transportation and storage needed to get a given product from the producer to the consumer. Adding preservatives to food products is often essential to ensure that the product will not spoil and will still be safe to eat by the time it reaches the consumer. The food must also be suitable for consumption for a reasonable amount of time afterward (shelf-life). Preservatives act to prevent or slow the growth of any microbes or mould in the food, keeping it as fresh as possible for the longest amount of time.
Most commonly, synthetic chemical preservatives are used in many products and they tend to have complicated and long names: Sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, and sodium erythorbate. These names can confuse consumers when reading the food labels if they are not familiar with chemistry nomenclature. In the recent past, certain common preservatives have been questioned regarding potential links to cancer, notably butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). It was officially banned from being added to processed foods sold in Canada once a significant amount of evidence supporting a possible link to cancer was discovered. “More specifically, BHA is considered as an epigenetic carcinogen because it causes cell proliferation via epigenetic events” states a 2012 review article from the Obstetrics and Gynecology International Journal looking at Epigenetics and Breast Cancers.
This case and similar ones are driving consumers toward having ‘clean’ labels, meaning that the products contain natural ingredients with familiar names such as grapefruit seed and rosemary extracts.
These natural preservatives are not always as effective or efficient as the more common chemical preservatives, but still have potential for development, and this is where MAIN comes in.
The main driver for the development of MAIN is the increasing consumer demand for (artificial) preservative-free and minimally-processed foods that still have reasonably long shelf-lives. The group working in MAIN will have this goal in mind and while working with natural ingredients to produce foods that meet those criteria and are economically feasible to produce on a larger scale.
The discovery or innovation of new natural preservatives is a rigorous and long process which undoubtedly requires a tremendous amount of research. This will open up many group research projects within the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Faculty as well as interdisciplinary research projects for graduate students.