Virginia Tech researchers are collaborating on a research project that focuses on growing stronger and sweeter edamame in the U.S. to boost edamame production and satisfy the growing number of edamame consumers.
The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture has granted Bo Zhang, an assistant professor in the school of plant and environmental sciences at Virginia Tech, $3.7 million to study and generate new edamame breeds that both taste sweet and can be grown in the U.S. The research is taking place across three research institutions in the nation, including the University of Arkansas, the University of Missouri and Virginia Tech.
Currently, over 70 percent of the edamame in America is imported from countries such as China and Taiwan. Haibo Huang, an assistant professor in the food science and technology department, explained that the U.S. edamame market is expanding quickly as people are looking for new sources of proteins and dietary fibers.
But, the problem is the U.S. doesn’t have a good variety of edamame or vegetable soybean products, which is the reason for the large importations.
“I think it is very important for us in the U.S. to develop our own best varieties of edamame,” Huang said. “This project is important because it is one of the first kind of multimillion dollar projects that’s including qualified, interdisciplinary scientists ... including crop, agriculture, economics (scientists) all working together to form a bigger team to tackle the grand challenges in this area.”
Additionally, Zhang, who is the principal investigator on this project, said the team has two main goals.
“One goal is that the varieties (of edamame) should have good plant structure suitable for harvest,” Zhang said. “The other specific goal is to meet the requirements of the customers.”
Forming better plant structure means growing edamame that are longer than current edamame plants so that they are easier to harvest with tractors. Moreover, Zang and her team are working on developing edamame with smaller canopies, which are currently too wide.
Meeting the requirements of American customers includes growing edamame that have larger and sweeter seeds. The team is testing hundreds of these beans to find the best edamame plant.
Moreover, the long-term goals are to increase the competitiveness of the edamame product in the international market. Susan Duncan, a professor in the food science and technology department whose expertise is in sensory evaluation, is guiding the research on how consumers feel and how they assess the edamame as they take it from the various breeding lines the researchers are creating.
According to Duncan, this study will become part of the opportunity to purchase American product as opposed to having to rely on imports. It can also help increase the American population’s awareness of edamame as a good source of nutrients, create economic growth and workforce development opportunities, and be a model for other products that need improvement along the local and mid-Atlantic region.
“What we daydream about is that we will help identify some good soybean varieties that can be used to produce fresh edamame for the American market,” Duncan said. “That it will create opportunities for alternative crops for our region and across the country ... so this could be an opportunity to expand that market substantially and allow small businesses to grow higher.”
At the frontlines of this project are graduate students from interdisciplinary backgrounds, including those studying food science, plant pathology and agricultural economics.
Dajun Yu, a graduate student in the department of food science and technology, has taken part in the blanching process and chemical analysis for measuring flavor. She analyzes the sugar content and the amino acid content, specifically the sucrose and the alanine in the edamame plants.
“For our graduate students, it's a really good opportunity to be involved in such a big project,” Yu said. “I think (this is) an opportunity for the graduate students (to be) involved in this project, to learn lots of things. I think that's why I'm excited about this project, I learned a lot and we’re excited to see what we will do (to) change the future situation of the edamame in the U.S. It's exciting.”