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Amid the recent price increases in wheat flour, the University of the West Indies, St Augustine will be offering pumpkin and green banana flour as alternatives from September.

Products can be sourced at the University’s Field Station and on UWI’s campus, researcher Dr Wendy-Ann Isaac from the Department of Food Production at the Faculty of Food and Agriculture said.

And while prices are yet to be determined, Isaac told the Sunday Business Guardian that it could be cheaper in the long term.

“Given the high cost to produce the flour, it will not be. There is a high cost in labour; to cut up produce, then an additional cost in drying and then milling. In the long term, prices may be lowered. There is also a high cost for the equipment for drying.”

The price of flour on the local market continues to soar and a day after the National Flour Mills passed on a 28 per cent price increase to consumers of its flour products, Nutrimix Flour Mills also announced it would increase the price of its flour products.

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, severe weather conditions in several grain and wheat-producing countries, and the decision by some of the world’s largest wheat-producing nations to curtail their exports have contributed to price escalations on the international markets that have adversely affect all countries, the companies cited.

But now with expected availability of the pumpkin and green banana flour from UWI, consumers will have a greater choice as there are already several alternatives on market including plantains.

In detailing the specifics of the pumpkin and green banana flour Isaac explained that both are marketed as gluten-free and paleo flour substitutes for wheat flour.

Paleo-friendly foods include meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts, fruits and veggies, along with healthy fats and oils.

She also noted that pumpkin flour is rich in dietary fibre, reduces the risk of coronary heart disease as well as certain cancers and also plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of diabetes and obesity.

Additionally, it helps prevent skin diseases and vision disorders as pumpkins are also a good source of carotenoids, mineral salts, vitamins and other bio-active substances, Isaac said.

She noted that flour made from pumpkin has a longer shelf-life and could be used over a longer period due to its flavour, sweetness and high carotenoid content.

Studies also shown that bread made from wheat flour supplemented by pumpkin flour had good nutritional value and sensory characteristics, Isaac added.

She also noted that green banana is also rich in fibre and is a nutrient-dense alternative to wheat and refined flours.

“It is loaded with resistant starch, which is excellent for diabetics and pre-biotic fibre that promotes digestion and enhances gut bacteria,” Isaac said.

On the process of making these types of flour she explained that pumpkins and green bananas are first washed, skins are peeled, cut into thin slices, dried (in freeze dryer or dehydrator) and finally milled to reveal, silky and light flour textures.

Moreso, no component of the pumpkin is wasted.

For instance, seeds are treated and stored in the seed bank which was launched in April this year by UWI aimed at strengthening the T&T’s food security initiatives.

Skins go to compost production and the flesh of the various pumpkin varieties are either freeze dried or dehydrated, Isaac further explained, adding that they have been evaluated for physiochemical attributes. She said the department is currently in the process of conducting tests on the functional properties to compare them with commercial wheat flour.

What prompted this research into pumpkin flour?

This initiated started in 2015 in collaboration of Dr Saheeda Mujjafar from the Faculty of Engineering, some preliminary investigations into the production of freeze-dried pumpkins were examined, Isaac said

She said the project looked at different varieties of pumpkins grown under various fertiliser regimes (manure, fertiliser, organic amendments and no fertiliser) also taking into consideration the quality of pumpkins produced.

The green banana flour, Isaac said, is part of another project, with Growise Freshfarm–an agro-processing company with the sole mission of providing pesticide free produce.

According to its website the purpose of this project is to assist the Government to establishment of a thriving banana industry with low-cost disease-free planting materials to cut down on low-quality imports from the Dominican Republic, Suriname, St Vincent, St Lucia and Grenada.

Additionally, is hoped that the local banana industry will make a dent in the huge import bill of fresh fruit in T&T, Growise Freshfarm added.

And more than just making bread from pumpkin and green banana flour, Isaac said there are a host of value-added products that can also be derived.

But given the challenges facing the country for the importation of wheat , why are these items now being derived from UWI?

According to Isaac, Government has an important role to play as getting into flour production calls for investment in commercial type equipment powered by generators or alternative energy.

“This will be necessary to increase supply, making alternative flour available for the population. Large warehouses will have to be used to house these equipment and a specialised labour force,” she explained.

Farmers, she added, will also have to be contracted to produce the commodities on a large scale in an arrangement similar to the poultry industry in Trinidad.

And on strengthening the country’s food security efforts, Isaac outlined that the Faculty of Food and Agriculture has been conducting research over the past two decades in the production of flour from cassava, sweet potato, yam and even breadfruit.

This work was spearheaded by Dr Lynda Wickham who is now retired.

According to Isaac, Wickham has taught several courses on commodity utilisation and has been advocating for these alternative flours in food security for the region for a very long time.

Additionally, she was instrumental in developing an MSc in value addition for food and nutrition security in the department.

In paying tribute to Wickham’s efforts Isaac said, “Even in her retirement Dr Wickham has been steadfastly conducting research at her home in St Augustine on various yam cultivars and exploring various value-added items.”