Working to Benefit Society

Pavel Somavat’s research is focused on a variety of topics, including corn processing, and preparation and stability of natural food colors

Pavel Somavat spent four years teaching electrical engineering at CCS Haryana Agricultural University, a land-grant university located in India. Somavat enjoyed the underlying philosophy and offerings of the land-grant system – and when he had an opportunity to take a faculty position at one of the two land-grant universities in Missouri, he jumped at the chance.

Somavat joined the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) Division of Food Systems and Bioengineering (FSB) this year as an assistant professor of food science/biomedical, biological and chemical engineering. Somavat taught courses in food science and researched natural food colors, grain and biomass processing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley before joining CAFNR. Somavat was at CCS Haryana Agricultural University before joining the faculty at Rio Grande Valley.

“With a previous experience at a land-grant university, I was excited to be able to land at a university that follows those same principles of combining teaching, research and extension for the benefit of society,” Somavat said.

Somavat’s research is focused on corn processing, preparation and stability of natural food colors, effects of processing on bioactive compounds in food, application of induction heating for food processing and process simulations. His research interest stemmed from his PhD work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his diverse academic background.

“I had a great opportunity to be part of a $2 million grant where we were able to explore a variety of colored corn varieties, including purple corn,” Somavat said. “We ended the project with several interesting finds, which I’m excited to continue researching at the University of Missouri.”

Purple corn is native to South America, and commonly seen in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. Somavat’s research in Illinois showed numerous positive aspects of the crop, including a high concentration of anthocyanins and health-promoting polyphenolic compounds. Anthocyanins are found naturally in plant matter and are the pigments that impart red, purple and blue hues to many fruits, vegetables and flowers. Somavat’s research included processing the corn to identify how much pigment was present in the corn, and in what part of the processed corn it was concentrated.

“We eat blueberries and drink red wine for their health benefits, as both are rich in anthocyanins and polyphenolic compounds,” Somavat said. “We observed that purple corn contained four to six time more anthocyanins than blueberries, meaning that there could be some major health benefits within purple corn.”

Somavat and his colleagues found that the pigment was primarily concentrated in the purple corn pericarp, the hard, outer coat that protects the kernel both before and after planting. Pericarp is a waster material for the processing industry, as it is mainly composed of cellulose, and humans don’t have the enzymes to digest it.

“We used the three main milling processes – wet milling, dry milling and dry grinding,” Somavat said. “We tailored a process where we were able to take out the polyphenol-rich corn pericarp at the front end of the milling process.”

Along with potential health benefits, Somavat sees other uses for purple corn as well. Since the pericarp is the only part of the kernel utilized for anthocyanin extraction, the remaining endosperm consisting of starch and protein can be used by the processing industry. Somavat has also seen the crop used in making specialty bourbons and tortilla chips.

An exciting avenue that Somavat is hoping to explore is using polyphenol-rich purple corn pericarp extract as a natural insect deterrent.

“We tested the purple corn pericarp extract on tobacco hornworm while I was in Texas,” Somavat said. “The goal was to see if that pericarp extract could be used as a deterrent for insects. Fruits and vegetables grown in organic environments cannot have any synthetic insecticides applied on them. If the pericarp extract can used to keep insects away, that would be an exciting use of the crop.”

Somavat has already begun collaborating with other researchers in his short time at MU. He has already had conversations with Sherry Flint-Garcia, adjunct professor in the Division of Plant Sciences, and research geneticist and lead scientist with USDA-ARS.

“My hope is to develop a purple corn variety that can be grown here in the Midwest,” Somavat said. “It was exciting to know that Dr. Flint-Garcia is already developing similar ideas. We see a path forward where these colored varieties of corn can make a big impact for farmers, industry and the consumers. I feel this research is incredibly exciting, as you can influence the lives of people around you.”

Somavat earned his bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering at Maharshi Dayanand University in India. He received his master’s in information and communications engineering from Technische Hochschule Mittelhessen in Germany.

His PhD work took place at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied agricultural and biological engineering.

“Both of my parents are retired professors, so it was only natural that I would find my way to a faculty position,” Somavat said. “I’m excited to be at the University of Missouri and work with the great researchers and faculty within CAFNR.”