PepsiCo partnered with the government, academics and other companies to sequence the oat genome in four months, a development the food and beverage giant said may lead to heartier varieties with improved sustainability, taste and nutrition.
The food and beverage company, which uses the grain in its Quaker-branded oatmeal, bars and other products, is releasing the data free for public use because it "serves a broader purpose" to help improve sustainability and the livelihood of farmers who grow the crop, René Lammers, PepsiCo's chief science officer, told Food Dive.
Until now, he said the oat has not been heavily invested in by the food industry because it is not one of the more widely used commodities like corn or wheat. But with more information known about its genetic components, the hope is that it could spur additional use of oats, as well as more research.
"We want to sort of re-energize the conversation and the innovation intensity in this, for what we believe is a very important crop," Lammers said.
The oat has seen its popularity remain largely steady in recent years, with the average person consuming about 4.8 pounds of oat products each year, according to Statista.
But the grain has received more attention recently because it contains a number of attributes popular with consumers. It is rich in anti-oxidants, high in fiber and associated with combating chronic illnesses, such as heart disease.
Oatmeal also is easy to prepare and can be eaten on the go, making it popular with busy consumers looking to fill up with essential nutrients. The global market size for oatmeal, for example, is expected to reach $3.32 billion by 2026, a compound annual growth rate of 4.76%, according to data from Fortune Business Insights.
"We live in a consumer goods world, you want to continue to improve. ... We felt more could be done in the world of oats. We felt there wasn't enough investment and attention going into it."
Chief science officer, PepsiCo
The oat genome is much larger and more complex than other major crops like corn and soy, which historically have had extensive private funding for research, he said. The limited genetic knowledge publicly available about the grain has in turn slowed discovery and breeding of better oat varieties for farmers, the environment and consumers.
"There is a do-good element here in terms of sharing some of your technology," Lammers noted. "But if you combine it with other layers of advances that we've built over the years, flavoring being one of them, then I think we are still in a very competitive" position.
The genome sequence will help PepsiCo breed oats for a host of sustainability attributes, including increased yields; improved disease resistance; healthier soils that sequester carbon and reduce water run-off; and lower the amount of land and other resources needed to grow oats. Understanding the full genome will also improve the New York company's ability to identify oats rich in fiber and essential nutrients, while creating more flavorful varieties that could widen its appeal with consumers.
"Understanding the complete genome also helps you in targeting these individual qualities, and ultimately benefiting consumers," Lammers said. "We live in a consumer goods world, you want to continue to improve. ... We felt more could be done in the world of oats. We felt there wasn't enough investment and attention going into it."
To expedite the sequencing of the oat genome, PepsiCo worked with Corteva Agriscience, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Saskatchewan, which supplied the oat variety. This is the first time the 122-year-old beverage and snack giant has ever sequenced a specific ingredient. Lammers said while the company is focused on oats for now and doesn't have any immediate plans to work on other commodities, it could consider other ingredients in the future.
"We felt we've always had a good, strong pipeline in our innovation from an oats perspective, but you need to continue to innovate," Lammers said. "What we hope is we will continue to drive innovation in an important category for us, and an important brand in Quaker Oats."