A UAF doctoral candidate works on biochemical, functional, and end-use perspectives of modified cereal brans.
Farah Ahmad has become infamous among other USPCAS-AFS doctoral students because of her reaction when departing Pakistan for her American exchange.
“I was so nervous,” she says, chuckling about the memory now. “The CAS staff had to basically push me onto the plane.”
Seven months later, the chemistry student from UAF showed none of that nervousness when she presented whole-wheat chapatis to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. Ms. Ahmad was invited to the Bread Lab, an interdisciplinary kitchen research unit of Washington State University, by Dr. Steve Jones, a USPCAS-AFS research grant collaborator. Her visit to the Bread Lab allowed her to present some of her project research on modified cereal brans in edible form to Mr. Gates himself.
Ms. Ahmad’s research focuses on analyzing the enzymes and proteins within cereal brans, with the end goal of improving bran consumption in the Pakistani diet and marketplace. Brans are an important component of any whole grain flour, and bran is rich in phytochemicals, minerals, and dietary fiber.
“Unfortunately, after the milling process in Pakistan, most bran is going into animal feeds,” says Ms. Ahmad.
This is because bran content affects bread formulations. It increases the weight and density of loaves and creates a heavy, less pliable bread, properties that aren’t valued in the traditional light Pakistani breads known as chapatis and rotis. Most bread flours used in Pakistan have been finely milled, eliminating the nutrient-rich hulls and husks from the finished grain product.
Ms. Ahmad, a doctoral student in UAF’s Department of Chemistry, has approached this issue by analyzing enzymatic modifications of brans from wheat, sorghum, millet, and barley. She has investigated whether certain milling techniques and grinding processes can break down the bran enough to activate the sugar and carbohydrate processes that create a soft, pliable dough.
Her chemical analyses were conducted at UC Davis under the mentorship of Dr. Carlito Lebrilla, a professor in the UCD Department of Chemistry. Ms. Ahmad’s research searched for the presences of monosaccharides and polysaccharides in various flours from her four focal cereals, and mapped the specific carbohydrate linkages in those cereal brans. Her data will be used to argue that bran should be included in more market-available flours for human consumption in Pakistan.
Of course, any new flour recommendation ultimately has to taste good and bake properly. That’s where the WSU Bread Lab comes into the picture. A USPCAS-AFS Round 2 Research Grant between WSU’s Dr. Steve Jones and UAF’s Dr. Imran Pasha is investigating composite flour technology as a way to fight malnutrition and food insecurity in Pakistan. As a student of Dr. Pasha’s, Ms. Ahmad was the perfect delegate to represent UAF during Mr. Gates’s tour of the Bread Lab.
“My basic research is in food technology, but it is rooted in an understanding of chemistry,” states Ms. Ahmad. “Bran is such an important part of the whole grains, it should absolutely be brought into human foods.”
During her exit seminar at UC Davis, USPCAS-AFS Chief of Party Dr. Jim Hill asked about the tastier aspects of Ms. Ahmad’s investigation: “So you took the milled products from your investigation, and you did the baking yourself?” When Ms. Ahmad replied that she had baked both cookies and breads, Dr. Hill replied, “There’s a character on a children’s show here in America called the Cookie Monster—that’s me. I want to know when you bake the next batch of cookies.”
The U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies (USPCAS) is educating and training the next generation of scientists, engineers, and policy makers through innovative academic programs crucial for Pakistan’s development in agriculture and food security. Through applied research, academia-industry collaboration, and policy formation, USPCAS enhances Pakistan’s economic growth and prosperity. USPCAS was made possible by support from the American people through United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
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Profile written by Levi McGarry.