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Flax dehulling plant receives award

flax council of canada release

Ag r o u n d b r e a k i n g Canadian company, which built the world’s first commercial dehulling plant for flax, has won a prestigious award. Natunola Health Biosciences Inc., under the leadership of its president and CEO, Nam Fong Han, recently received the 2008 Award of Excellence for Innovation in Agriculture and Agri-Food.

Natunola’s plant in Winchester, Ontario, represents the culmination of many years of research into the flax dehulling process and provides new opportunities for Canada’s flax growers. Natunola is the eighth recipient of this annual award, co-sponsored by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, which recognizes an individual, organization or business for an innovative contribution to the agri-food sector.

“We are very excited about our innovative flax products and the Award of Excellence,” Han said. “These provide the catalyst for our company and our team to continue to expand our market share in the healthy food industry.”

In the past few years, Natunola Health Inc. has sold a range of new flax products developed from dehulled flax, such as shelled flax kernel and shelled flax meal. These products are shelf stable and do not require grinding or refrigeration. Many retail products are now using the flax ingredients from Natunola. The company also has its own brand of retail products under the brand name of Health’s Delight TM.

The 40,000-square-foot plant, a half-hour drive from Ottawa, also produces natural ingredients for cosmetics and personalcare products. The company employs 22 staff and processes 800 to 1,000 tonnes of Prairiegrown flax annually. Preferred flax cultivars are larger seed varieties such as Emerson and Sorrel. “The bigger the seed, the better,” said Han.

The dehulling process

Flax is well known for its versatility and many health benefits. However, the hard, sticky outer surface of flaxseeds means that, eaten whole, the inside kernel and other healthy nutrients won’t be digested by the human body.

Han got the impetus to create his innovative plant when he was contacted by Steve Cui at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

By solving the mystery of how to remove the flaxseed shell, Cui and his colleagues were the first to develop the innovative, economical process known as Flaxseed Dehulling Technology which makes flax components such as alpha-linolenic fatty acid, lignans and dietary fibre more easily accessible. These powerful agents help in the prevention and treatment of diseases, including heart and certain kinds of cancer.

According to Cui, large American food companies had sought the dehulling process since the 1950s. He began his research into the process in 1993 while working as a post doctoral fellow at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada laboratory in Morden, Manitoba with Joe Mazza.

During the dehulling process, a flaxseed sample is treated to remove moisture. Using mechanical friction or abrasion, the seed is broken into two pieces – the hull and the kernel. Air, blown through the flaxseeds, separates out components by weight, without affecting the oil in the kernel. “The beauty of the dehulling process is that it doesn’t destroy the cells and the oil in the seed is protected from oxidization; therefore, the shelf life of the product is longer.”

Once Cui and Mazza patented the technique, the next hurdle was moving the results of their research from the lab bench to the commercial market.

“Once you have the technology, you need someone to be willing to take a risk,” Dr. Cui said.

A successful partnership

In 2001, Cui connected with Han. With a two-year $100,000 grant from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Matching Investment Initiative, research continued into industrialization of the process. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “Natunola was so impressed by Cui’s expertise and technical assistance that the company built the world’s first manufacturing plant of dehulled flaxseed products.”

Another advantage of the Flaxseed Dehulling Technology is that it lends itself to value-added processing at the plant. “To be able to enrich the mucilage and lignans in the hulls and the omega-3 fatty acid in the kernels, you need to get them in a pure format,” Cui said.

Products containing lignans and mucilage from the flax hull, as well as alpha-linolenic fatty acid in the kernel, can be enriched up to four times the amount contained in flax naturally. This has led to the full utilization of each functional component in flax and an expansion of nutraceutical, animal feed and personalcare product lines. Natunola flax products include omega-3 flax kernel, flax hull, flax bran, flax fibre, as well as milled flax and flax meal. These products can be used by the industry as ingredients in baked goods, in dairy products and other foods.

For his groundbreaking efforts, Cui received the Leadership Award in Technology Transfer from the Canadian government’s Federal Partners in Technology Transfer in 2006. The award was granted “for exemplary leadership in the development of inventive food extraction processes and the transfer of flaxseed dehulling technologies.”

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