What do an invasive species and the booming supplement market have in common? Quite a bit, if a team of West Virginia University food scientists has its way.

Kristen Matak and Janet Tou, associate professors of human nutrition and foods at WVU, have received a $435,353 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore the potential of repurposing protein from underutilized fish. In the process, they hope to create an innovative protein source for the world’s growing population.

“The need for better management of natural fish resources and waste management is a pressing issue,” said Matak. “Fish are a major component to the global food supply, most of which arrives in the form of fillets, fish meal or fish oil. Unfortunately, only 30 to 40 percent of initial fish weight is recovered for human consumption at the fish processing plants.

“The rest, making up to 60 to 70 percent of the initial weight, are typically discarded or rendered into non-food products due to difficulty of recovering the protein that is attached to the head, bones or skin.”

Matak and Tou will explore ways to recover a valuable nutrient known as sarcoplasmic protein.

“Sarcoplasmic protein is soluble in water and low ionic solutions,” Matak explained. “It can be effectively recovered from fish processing by-products fairly simply, and a high-protein solution that would otherwise have been thrown away would be repurposed as a protein powder with properties similar to whey protein concentrate.”

The overall goal of this project is to create a marketable protein powder fit for human consumption. The recovered protein powder would have high storage stability and be easy to transport, increasing the variety of ways the product can be used.

“For example, it could be mixed in drinking water or fortified with Vitamin A for use in the developing world,” Matak said. “It could also be used to enhance the nutritional profile of otherwise low protein or incomplete protein products.”

Matak, Tou and their graduate students will assess the purity and nutritional quality of the resulting protein powder. They’ll compare the functionality of the powder to whey protein in typical food systems like protein shakes. They’ll also have a panel of tasters evaluate sensory attributes like color, texture, odor and acceptability. There will also be an animal feeding component to the research.

“Animal feeding will help us test the protein’s quality,” Tou said. “High protein quality is more desirable, and low quality means that the proteins won’t synthesize into muscle mass.”

It also confirms the product’s safety for human consumption, Tou said.

“These things need to be tested before we can add new products into the food supply, particularly if the protein is going to be used in products consumed by infants and children,” she added.

As for the fish that provides this protein, Matak has an idea that would increase the research’s environmental angle even further.

“I would like to work with Silver Carp, since that’s an invasive species in the United States,” Matak said. “I like the idea of turning an invasive species into a functional food.”