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February 20, 2012

A Waterville company hopes its corn protein patents will create products and jobs in the potato industry

Photo/Courtesy University of Maine Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, holds a purple potato. She's leading students in research on Global Protein's corn-derived food coatings.

Those seeking locally grown advances in agriculture haven't “zein” anything yet.

That's the hope of Bob Cyr, CEO of Waterville-based Global Protein Products, who is already seeing his patented corn protein formulas make potato growers around the world more efficient, and who may soon be helping processors develop new and better spud products, like low-fat french fries and peeled potatoes, without dangerous preservatives.

All from a corn protein called zein.

So promising is the company's work that it has received almost $200,000 in grants from the Maine Technology Institute over the last three years for research and development, and the University of Maine is collaborating on product development.

Global Protein, which already has factories in Massachusetts, Idaho and northern Maine making one of its products, will benefit from those partnerships by potentially creating new products and developing applications of those products around the world. The state, for its part, hopes the investment of funds and university brain power will help the state's potato industry, boost exports and lead to new jobs in the processing and packaging of potato products.

Global Protein is essentially an intellectual property company, says Cyr. It collects patents and researches new formulations of Icein, which is the company's patented zein-based product. Cyr, who joined the company as CEO in 2008, does much of the marketing, manages the distributors and assists in their sales efforts.

Formed in 1996 in Maine by Waterville lawyer Mark Kierstead, the company's first patented product — PM223, a potato seed treatment for farmers interested in less-toxic ways to protect seeds — was invented by Blaise McArdle.

The company has no physical footprint — its three employees work from home — but did more than $1 million in sales of PM223 last year using distributors in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand, including substantial sales to Maine growers.

“We are not a chemical,” Cyr says of its Icein. “We are a natural product.”

Made from zein-based corn powder, Icein is a water- and grease-resistant polymer that forms a seal when applied. Food-grade zein has U.S. Food and Drug Administration “GRAS” status (“generally recognized as safe to eat”) and has also been made into biodegradable plastics.

Cyr said earlier iterations of the company looked into developing zein for use in biodegradable hay bale packaging and other agricultural plastics, but the idea was abandoned.

“We're a small company,” he says. “We need to focus on what we know how to do.”

PM223 is a mixture of Icein, talc and pine bark, applied to cut potato seed pieces before they are planted. Cyr said PM223 instantly seals up the surface of a cut seed potato, saving seeds and improving planting efficiency for farmers.

Since 2009, MTI has issued Global Protein grants totaling almost $200,000 for research that included field trials in Maine, North Dakota and Pennsylvania to use Icein to fight late blight, a fungus-like disease responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century.

Lately, the company obtained $170,884 to work with the University of Maine to develop two new Icein applications that bring it closer to the dinner table: a low-fat french fry and a natural preservative to replace sulfites in whole peeled potatoes.

“What we liked about the Global Protein project is, first, the opportunity for collaboration with the University of Maine and, second, that it's an application of a new, innovative technology to an industry that is a very traditional one,” says Joe Migliaccio, manager of MTI's business innovation program.

He adds, “It's not unusual for a tech company startup to be bootstrapped or to remain lean while it ramps up its product development and, instead of hiring staff, contracts out its research and development needs to experts. This will repatriate dollars to Maine. It's a high-margin-potential business with direct benefits to agriculture in Maine, and we really liked the fact that it's got a northern Maine swing to it as it benefits the potato industry.”

What’s corn got to do with it?

The two products being developed with UMaine aim to create dozens of jobs, mostly in the area of food-grade packing and processing, Cyr says, the hope being that jobs are created in Maine to bag and ship the new Global Protein products.

Currently, “nobody does contract food-grade bagging or boxing” anywhere in his market area, Cyr says. “The jobs that would be created would be in the packaging and bagging end,” using what's called a modified atmosphere bag to ship the product.

A low-fat french fry may yet be fast-food fare if Global Protein's research is successful. Cyr says studies so far show potatoes can be deep fried with 25% less oil uptake if pre-coated with one of his corn-based products. Less oil means less fat in the food.

That has two potentially positive effects:

Demand: Consumers might line up for low-fat fries. However, Mary Ellen Camire, a UMaine professor of food science and human nutrition who is aiding the research, says such a product isn't guaranteed to boost the call for Maine potatoes. Though her initial research supports consumer acceptance, the marketplace is fickle, and negative health claims over the past year have suppressed potato demand, she says.

Cost: Food processors will save money. The low-fat french fry's most fanatic fans are food processors, for whom the Global Protein coating provides a kind of fuel efficiency. To them, vegetable oil is not just a cooking medium but an ingredient that gets absorbed into the product and shipped away.

“For a french fry manufacturer such as McCain, if the fries aren't absorbing as much oil, they aren't purchasing as much vegetable oil,” Camire says. “The cost of buying the corn powder should be more than offset with that savings.” She notes that prices for the grade of oil used to make french fries are almost as volatile as crude oil.

The research goal for the coating is that it also enables pre-cut fries to maintain their pristine color and crispness for 14 days in a modified atmosphere bag for sale in supermarkets nationally without using sulfites.

Icein-treated fries “have the taste, color and texture of real homemade, fresh-cut french fries,” says Cyr, a Limestone native and 1983 University of Maine graduate with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering who worked on farms growing up in The County. Cyr also studied math and economics at Bowdoin College.

Sulfites and sensitivity

Early consumer reaction has been positive, Camire says, led by testing at the UMaine sensory evaluation facility — one of only a handful of such facilities in the country, where students studying to join the food industry are getting experience testing the product for color, taste and fat content.

As for the other Global Protein/UMaine effort — using a zein-based formula as a preservative to replace sulfites in whole peeled potatoes — Camire sees definite advantages in the marketplace. “There's a safety offset, because some people are allergic to sulfites; [Icein is] high quality and natural,” she says.

In 1990, the FDA banned use of sulfites on fresh potatoes, saying the preservative could trigger potentially fatal allergic reactions. Currently, the FDA is looking into regulations on the use of sulfites in dehydrated and frozen potato products, and in raw, peeled potato products.

Sulfites are added to peeled potatoes to prevent browning during preparation and processing. Research by the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station found that adding sulfites results in products with residual levels of sulfur dioxide that may be hazardous to as many as 200,000 sulfite-sensitive Americans.

There's been some resistance to phasing out sulfites, with members of the potato industry maintaining that alternatives are not effective for use on pre-cut potato products. However, the pro-consumer Center for Science in the Public Interest says several sulfite-free processed potato products are already being marketed. Initial research suggests consumers will accept whole peeled potatoes treated with Icein.

Similar to the low-fat french fry, Camire figures sales of a corn-based preservative for whole peeled potatoes will be driven more by its acceptance by processors than by consumers. After the UMaine research concludes, Global Protein will need to attend food industry conventions and trade shows to convince producers of its value.

If Global Protein is successful in developing Icein as an alternative to sulfites, it will face competition in the market. For example, Nature Seal Inc., a small Westport, Conn.-based company, makes a patented product called Reducit that's billed as a natural and allergen-free substance that prevents discoloration and increases storage times for fresh and frozen potatoes. Meanwhile, BASF, a large global chemical company headquartered in Germany, also has a patented sulfite substitute.

Until then, it's one step at a time. Inside Camire's classroom in Orono, students are busy cutting, frying and eating french fries for class credit.

“We're slinging fries like crazy these days,” she says.

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