It’s peanuts for this graduate student

Ask almost anyone to name a powerhouse in scientific research, and chances are the name Dr. George Washington Carver will come up. The name is almost synonymous with peanuts, one of the alternative crops he encouraged poverty-stricken farmers to grow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Amanda Stephens conducts peanut research in a lab at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Stephens.

Far from forgotten, Carver’s legacy lives in the 3 to 4 billion pounds of peanuts produced annually in the United States and ongoing scientific study. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), for example, has improved the legume’s flavor and quality through enhanced breeding and processing. The agency is responsible for extending the shelf life of peanut products by combating the unstable fatty acids that lead to flavor changes. Recent developments include a process for removing a portion of the oil without sacrificing flavor, and partially defatted peanuts are now in the marketplace. Flavor-enhanced roasted products may not be far behind, and scientists have also identified the chemicals responsible for that signature aroma, which could lead to replacing compounds sometimes lost in processing.

George W. Carver Award

The National Peanut Board, a research and promotion organization, has honored Carver’s memory annually since 2001. The Dr. George Washington Carver Award supports a future peanut researcher’s endeavors and community spirit. Undergraduate and graduate students may apply for the award, which includes a $1,000 prize to the winner, with the same amount donated to the honoree’s school for peanut research.

The National Peanut Board looks for students who exemplify the spirit of the peanut industry’s father: a positive, measurable impact on peanut cultivation or peanut product development, and strength of character as reflected by community involvement or service.

“Production research is vital to peanut farmers. I think it’s great that the National Peanut Board offers this award to encourage young researchers to advance the future of peanut farming in a variety of areas,” said Michael Davis, National Peanut Board research committee chairman and Florida board member.

Although it may seem that the nation’s largest peanut-producing state, Georgia, would corner the market on Carver Award winners, the 2009 honoree hails from Texas. On July 15, Amanda Stephens, a Ph.D. student in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutritional sciences at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, was honored during the American Peanut Research and Education Society’s annual meeting.

“The judges chose Amanda as the winner of this award because her research is extremely promising for the future of peanuts in the areas of nutrition and health,” said Wes Shannon, chairman of the research committee and a member of the Carver Award judging panel. “Also, because of Dr. Carver’s commitment to research as well as helping others, community involvement is an important part of this award. Amanda’s activities at school and outside of school show that she’s dedicated not only to her research, but also to others.”

Learn more about the award and the application process at www.nationalpeanutboard.org.

Approximately 40 percent of American grown peanuts go into processed foods, from salted peanuts, candy, crackers and cookies to peanut butter.
Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA, ARS.

Meet the winner

After receiving her master’s degree in food science and nutrition at NCSU, Stephens interviewed for the doctoral program. Dr. Tim Sanders’ project rolled three of her interests, biochemistry, nutrition and food science, into one study, so she is pleased that she can continue her education under his guidance. Sanders is a research leader for ARS and professor of food science at NCSU.

Current president of the school’s food science club, Stephens is no stranger to honors. She is the 2010 recipient of the Frito-Lay Graduate Scholarship and was a four-year soccer scholarship undergraduate student at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala.

She was on an NCSU team that placed first in the 2009 Institute of Food Technologists Student Association (IFTSA) Product Development competition. Stephens’ team created Shiverrs, a yogurt-based frozen mix that consumers mix with milk to make a strawberry-banana smoothie. Composed of a blend of ice flakes, powdered frozen ingredients and a low freezing point solution, Shiverrs are pellets that, when shaken with milk, produce a smoothie with the nutritional benefits of one full serving of fruit, added fiber and probiotics.

“Our product had to have a smooth, creamy texture characteristic of freshly blended smoothies,” said Stephens. “We worked hard to minimize the size of the ice crystals and attain the proper ice-liquid fraction balance in order to produce a consistency that is icy and creamy yet can be readily pulled through a straw.”

The Shiverrs team also put a lot of work into environmentally friendly product packaging. Targeted toward females ages 20 to 35 looking for an indulgent, but guilt-free, snack, Shiverrs is packaged in pouches that contain frozen pellets, four spoon/straws and a reusable shaker cup.

Despite that long list of accolades, Stephens says she was surprised to be named as the Carver Award recipient. “This was definitely an achievement I wasn’t expecting, so I was very honored.”

Researching new benefits of peanuts

Stephens’ work offers the potential for a new marketing tool for growers. Under the guidance of Sanders, her master’s and doctoral-level projects focus on peanuts’ cardiac benefits at the ARS peanut quality research unit at NCSU.

Sanders says, “Amanda’s research has direct current application to all current peanut products and future peanut product development, and thus to the overall sustainability of peanut production.”

Stephens’ initial work was based on prior studies that demonstrated that peanuts and peanut oil protect the heart by reducing the low-density lipoprotein, or bad, cholesterol [LDL-C] while maintaining healthy levels of high-density lipoprotein, or good, cholesterol [HDL-C]. However, the heart-healthy effects of fat-free peanut flour hadn’t previously been evaluated, despite the fact that flour contains beneficial compounds such as arginine, flavonoids and folates. There is also evidence that unsaturated fatty acids and arginine may strengthen bones. Thus, the project focused on evaluating the effects of fat-free peanut flour and other components on plasma cholesterol risk factors for cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis and bone strength in male Syrian golden hamsters.

Stephens fed four groups of hamsters different diets for six months. The control group received a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. The others were fed a modified menu by substituting fat-free peanut flour, peanut oil or whole peanuts for similar ingredients.

Upon studying the blood, aortas and femurs of the rodents, Stephens found that all test groups had significantly lower total plasma cholesterol and LDL-C than the control subjects. HDL-C wasn’t affected. Aortic total cholesterol (TC), free cholesterol (FC) and cholesteryl ester (CE) were notably lower in the test subjects. Bone strength studies were inconclusive. Stephens concluded that peanuts, peanut oil and fat-free peanut flour are effective in reducing cholesterol levels and in slowing the development of atherosclerosis.

Now beginning her doctoral level investigation, Stephens will continue this project by validating the initial results by repeating the study. The original project employed healthy hamsters; she will now expand it to include subjects with cardiac disease to determine if the peanut-based diet will reduce the disease risk. Stephens will also analyze the biochemical elements, particularly the lipid-free portion of the peanut, to determine why the test diets were successful in lowering cholesterol.

In the future, Stephens plans to work on the nutrition side of product development and would welcome the opportunity to continue her peanut research.

“As we learn more about this [nutritious crop], we can breed peanuts with even more [beneficial] elements, such as folate,” she says.

Every new health benefit that is discovered or bred into the legume is one more valuable sales and marketing tool for commercial peanut producers.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.