Unleashing the Hidden Power of Okra with Chromatography
Nov 27 2014
Plants play a key part of life on Earth. They obviously supply the oxygen and food, but did you know they also play an important part in the pharmaceutical industry? In fact, many medicines and precursor molecules originate from the plant world.
Recently, one plant has been the focus of a research project in an attempt to unleash its hidden powers – Abelmoschus esculentus (or okra to you and me).
But first, what is okra and what makes it special?
Okra is known by many different names, such as gumbo in the USA and lady’s fingers in the UK. It is grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions, with India producing around 70% of the world’s crop. It forms part in the diet in many countries due to its nutritional qualities - high vitamin C level and a rich source of minerals and fibre. The leaves and pods of okra are enjoyed in many different ways: raw, stir fry and as an ingredient in various stews around the world.
Recently, okra’s qualities have been studied by Katerina Alba, an Estonian student at the University of Huddersfield. The aim to use its properties to improve various foodstuffs. And chromatography was used as one of the key techniques in helping Katerina to understand okra better.
Along with spectroscopy, chromatography is one of the major analytical techniques at the disposal of any chemical or biochemical researcher. Chromatography is essentially a separation technique — the sample is carried along by a mobile phase (either gas or liquid) and the components of the sample mixture are separated due to their affinity for the stationary phase.
There are many different chromatographic techniques — from the relatively simple paper chromatography used in primary schools to separate ink spots — to the complex LC/MS/MS techniques used in advanced research to identify drug metabolites. The technique chosen depends on several factors including: sample volatility, type of analysis required and sample type.
Let’s see what has been happening as researchers use chromatography to unlock some of okra’s secrets…
Katerina used size exclusion chromatography (SEC) to investigate okra’s benefits as an emulsifier in the food industry. As the technique name suggests, molecules are separated based on their size or molecular weight. To find out about SEC read Characterisation of Polymers Using Gel Permeation Chromatography and Associated Techniques.
Emulsifier’s are important food ingredients in foodstuffs like butter, yogurt and mayonnaise where they act to keep the oil and water components combined. Pectin’s are found in plant cell walls and are made of polysaccharides — a polymer. They are widely used in foodstuffs as gelling agents and a source of fibre. Okra pectin is different from the pectin from apples and citrus fruits in terms of the proteins they contain. The differences mean that okra pectin could be used as an emulsifier. The team are working towards improving the consistency, texture and shelf life of the foodstuffs containing emulsifiers.
So what is the result?
You could soon enjoy your yogurt just a little more thanks to a dose of okra – and all with a little help from chromatography.
Image Source: Okra
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