Research student profile: Kai Lin Ek
Nutritional qualities of potatoes
Would you like fries with that? Potatoes, as the world’s third largest food crop and most extensively consumed root vegetable, have received much attention in recent years by nutritionists and agriculturalists. This project aims to study potatoes as a food crop, considers the properties of potato starch, particularly in relation to glycemic index (GI) and digestibility, and explores indicators for future breeding of low GI potatoes.
The glycemic index (GI) is a nutritional concept for ranking carbohydrate-based foods according to their capacity to increase blood glucose levels after a meal. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that consuming high GI foods is associated with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome all of which are increasing problems in both developed and developing countries. Potatoes have been classified as a food that is high GI, hence, many nutritionists advise that potatoes should be substituted with a low GI carbohydrate to reduce the risk of chronic disease. The importance and popularity of potatoes as a food crop indicates a need to develop cultivars that are digested slowly and have a low GI.
My work considers potatoes as a food crop, the properties of potato starch and the effects of potatoes on postprandial glycemia. Different varieties of potatoes with varying GI values will be assessed. Methods include enzymatic assays and chemical tests and functional tests. Various microscopy techniques will be used to study potato microstructure, starch granules and the effect of cooking. The glycemic effects of potatoes will be measured using both in vitro GI testing and in vitro tests.
The germplasm and plant breeding lines of potatoes are vast and diverse, and with four species and thousands of varieties there is much untapped potential for plant breeders. The development of a quick identification map for screening varieties for potato cultivars with a low GI is important for breeders and for improving consumer health.
I am from Singapore and have always been interested in human nutrition. I first came to Australia to do a Bachelor of Science at Melbourne university, after which I moved to Sydney to continue my education. I completed a Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics at Sydney University and became an accredited practicing dietitian. I then started a dietetic private practice at an outpatient clinic. Meanwhile I continued to be interested in research and worked part-time for Professor Jennie Brand-miller in GI research. In 2010, I decided to have a change in career path and go into food science instead of continuing in clinical dietetics. I was offered a scholarship to study the glycemic effect of potatoes and started my PhD in 2010.
My scholarship is a 3 part industry scholarship from Agrico Holland, the Mitolo Group (Australia) and Glycemic Index Foundation Limited.
I have received the the Research Outreach award at the 2011 Faculty symposium.
I have also been awarded a travel scholarship by the Crawford Fund as one of 12 scholars to attend the Crawford Fund conference 2010 in Canberra.
I have attended a environmental SEM workshop organised by the Australian centre of microscopy and microanalysis (ACMM).
I gave a presentation about my project at a plant microscopy group meeting organised by the ACMM.
I will be presenting a poster at National Food Futures Conference, Hobart in November 2011 organised by the Public Health Association of Australia.
- A review paper on the “Glycemic effect of potatoes” has been accepted by Food Chemistry journal for publication in a special edition.