Joel finds heart in food science research

16 January 2023

CQUniversity Master of Applied Science student Joel Johnson has explored chemical compounds in Australian crops which have the potential to benefit our health and may even reduce the risk of cardiovascular-associated disease.

The early career researcher' alongside his supervisor Senior Lecturer and Chemical Scientist Dr Mani Naiker' investigated the naturally occurring phenolic type compounds from several common pulse crops' which included mungbean' chickpea and faba bean.

Joel explained that if consumed in sufficient quantities' these phenolic compounds can be beneficial for our health' and his research has shown that Australian pulse crops are leading the way.

"Through my research I found that higher levels of phenolics are present in these pulse crops compared to common grain crops such as wheat' suggesting that increased routine consumption of Australian pulses may improve cardiovascular health'" he said.

"I also investigated the differences in phenolic contents between different commercial varieties and developed novel rapid and cost-effective methods for measured phenolics in these crops."

These developments could result in significant benefits for the Australian agriculture industry' potentially improving economic returns for local farmers.

"I hope my research will increase awareness among Australians about the potential health benefits of our pulses and increase domestic consumption of these crops'" Joel said.

"The developed methods for measuring phenolic content could be applied by crop breeders to breed pulse varieties with high levels of phenolics or be used by pulse processors to sell high-phenolic produce for a premium price."

Growing up in regional Queensland' Joel was surrounded by agriculture and food science' which he said helped fuel his passion for the industry.

"I grew up on a rural property outside of Rockhampton and at the time' CQU was one of the few universities offering a Bachelor of Science via distance.

"I had an interest in chemistry from high school and became fascinated by how chemical structures and reactions could explain all types of natural phenomena – from the steps of photosynthesis to the process behind fruit and crop maturation'" he said.

"I was fortunate to participate in additional learning opportunities like the Hermitage Schools Plant Science Competition' organized by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

"I was a runner-up in this competition in 2015 and followed this up by winning the major prize in 2016. As part of my prize' I was sponsored to attend the 2016 Australian Pulse Conference in Tamworth' which further highlighted the importance of food science to me."

Joel graduated from CQUniversity's Bachelor of Science (Applied Chemistry) in 2019 before continuing to a master's degree.

During this time' he was involved in several research projects investigating the phytochemical and antioxidant composition of Australian crops and native plants' motivating the 23-year-old to pursue a career in research.

"It was exciting when my master's thesis was accepted with no revisions required'" Joel said.

"My supervisor Dr Naiker said that he had never seen a Research Higher Degree (RHD) thesis accepted with no changes before!"

Dr Naiker congratulated Joel on his success and was excited to see how his research into 'heart healthy' compounds would develop.

"While protection from the development of heart disease due to antioxidant properties is still uncertain' there are clinical studies that track changes in disease burden and patient longevity to evaluate the true benefit of antioxidants.

"Even though the word 'antioxidant' can make people feel good! Dr Naiker explained.

"Joel's research investigated the levels of these compounds' and he also developed faster and inexpensive ways to analyse them.

"Promoting the health benefits of Australian pulses is good for everyone. "

To help advance his research' Joel has now received a Research Training Program (RTP) scholarship to complete his PhD.

"I will continue my research into the phenolic compounds of Australian pulses but using more advanced analytical instrumentation'" he explained.

"This will allow me to dive deeper into their structural characterisation and hopefully discover some new compounds.

"Long term' I am particularly interested in investigating the chemistry of native Australian bushfoods' many of which have not been investigated or sufficiently characterised' profiled and documented to date."