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Students discover chocolate key to serving healthy food

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What with the Jets getting hotter (despite Sunday's loss) and the weather getting brutally cold, I suspect most of you are eager to find out what happened at this year's Great Manitoba Food Fight.

This is the annual competition at The Forks wherein teams of budding food scientists from the faculties of agriculture and human ecology at the University of Manitoba battle to see who has created the tastiest and most marketable new food product.

The way it works is 10 teams pitch their product ideas and provide samples to a panel of expert judges consisting of Judy Wilson, director of marketing and communication at the Asper School of Business; Dave Shambrock, executive director of the Manitoba Food Processors Association; and me.

Once again the students' high-tech culinary skills and marketing genius filled us expert judges with pride in our education system and hope for the future of democracy.

I say this because the products whipped up by the students on Friday, while not always tasty in the sense of being something you would want to swallow, were packed with antioxidants, pro-biotic bacteria and fibre, all designed to improve gastrointestinal health, lower blood pressure and slow the aging process.

This is a radical departure from when I was in school and the major concern of students was to speed up the aging process because it made it easier for us to get our hands on important educational items, such as beer.

In previous years, the student teams picked their own ingredients, but this year, out of sheer cruelty, organizers forced the competitors to pluck a random ingredient out of a hat and then build a food item around it. The first thing we judges popped into our mouths was a "Carrot Cake Oatmeal" made with powdered carrots, which, according to the students, can help prevent night blindness.

"It's a good way to have vegetables for breakfast," they said. "We think we can target this to middle-aged people." As a middle-aged person, I would say the main goal of us older persons is to find new ways to incorporate vegetables into our morning routine and then, when our wife isn't looking, wrap them in bacon.

This year, the students were more innovative than ever, proving they had grasped the single most important rule of food science: If something tastes like foam insulation, make sure you dip it in chocolate!

For instance, we consumed a Black Forest Cake that featured the mystery ingredient of soluble flax fibre. "To make it taste really good, we decided to add cocoa powder, dark-chocolate chunks and cherries," the students explained.

We judges also gobbled "Canola Chocoballs," which were essentially chocolate-coated balls of something called ground canola press cake, which looks and tastes like a product you would (a) feed to livestock, or (b) use to insulate your house.

The big winner this year was the "Sea Buckthorn Plusterz," salty pretzel clusters drizzled with white chocolate and dried sea buckthorn, a plant with magical health properties and a name that sounds, to me at least, like a menacing sawtoothed creature from the sea.

"With a name like that, you should sell them in a bag with a scary pirate on it" was my helpful marketing tip to the students. My fellow judges clearly agreed, because they responded with a chorus of: "ARRRRR!!! ARRRRRR!!!"

"I'm so surprised," Elisabeth Harms, 24, a member of the winning team, chirped later. "They're easy to eat and sea buckthorn does everything good for you. But no one knows what it is, which is why I'm so surprised."

So, thanks to all these brave young food scientists, our future has never looked brighter because -- with the possible exception of the "Pinto Bean Smoothie" -- I'm pretty sure it will be dipped in chocolate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2013 A2

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