Food manufacturers from across North America will flock to Winnipeg this week to learn how to create disease-busting products while cutting their costs.
The conference, called Western Canadian Functional Food Ingredients: Strategies to Manage Costs and Enhance Products, takes place Wednesday and Thursday at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods (RCFF), at University of Manitoba's Smartpark.
RCFF director Peter Jones hopes the conference will not only help the industry, but also generate new contracts for RCFF.
Functional food contains high levels of ingredients with proven health benefits. This food has been a staple of the Manitoba economy, particularly since the RCFF opened eight years ago to research, develop and commercialize it.
The $31.2-million operation has earned Winnipeg a reputation as one of the world's leading authorities on functional food -- a buzz term for food that acts as medicine.
Despite its success, RCFF director Peter Jones says creating functional food is costly and consumers are paying the price.
For example, Becel Pro Active, a margarine that contains cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, costs twice as much as its plant sterol-free counterparts, says Jones.
(It was in 2010 when the food scientist flew to Ottawa with food giant Unilever to convince the federal government to allow them to print health claims on Becel's label. They succeeded with the help of their legal team, the ultimate coup for Jones and RCFF.)
"It's a challenge because if you go to your doctor to get a pill to lower your bad cholesterol, you can get that under your drug plan," he says. "If you choose a natural functional food, your drug plan is not going to pay for that. You have to reach into your wallet and pull out some green glue to make that process happen."
The high cost of creating packaged functional food comes from processing methods, mainly from extracting the bioactive ingredients from a whole food and fortifying another product such as yogurt, orange juice or margarine.
"Obviously, that's costly because you have to obtain the functional ingredient, mix it in and matrix it the right way," says Jones.
"And when you're adding that much more, you really have a cost implication. You're buying huge volumes."
Part of the solution lies in technology that Jones says will soon be part of RCFF.
He's looking at supercritical methods that use carbon dioxide, rather than solvents, to extract functional ingredients.
"Carbon dioxide is reusable and doesn't leave the residue that solvents do," says Jones, noting this feature also provides cost savings.
Jones has a piece of plant-growing equipment on order that will allow his scientists to test how certain crops react to changing environment, such as whether their functional ingredients increase or diminish under certain temperature or humidity conditions.
Myrna Grahn, a functional food business development specialist for the province, says it's lucrative to teach farmers and food processors how to use what she calls the "Canadian climate advantage" to their favour.
"We've shown that crops grown in cooler environments such as in the Prairie provinces have higher levels of bioactives. Those bioactives that help that plant grow also have a positive impact on human health," says Grahn, noting peas, barley, soybeans and carrots are among a growing list of Manitoba-made functional food.
"When you're in a crowded marketplace, anything that sort of shows your product has a health angle -- because consumers are looking for healthy food -- it helps improve their bottom line."
One perception that functional food researchers are battling is the latest trend toward whole food. They have to convince skeptical advocates to give processed versions of these foods a chance.
Jones's perspective is twofold: Boosting the nutrition with specialized processed foods while using local ingredients to improve health and the economy.
"Let's not just take our raw product, put it in a boxcar and ship it out with very thin margins, let's add value right here," says Jones, who notes there are 200 respected studies that prove plant sterols, like the type found in certain margarines, will significantly lower bad cholesterol.
"By the time it gets off to market, it's worth a whole lot more than the raw commodity itself."
The functional food conference is open to food producers and the public. The cost to attend is $50 for students; $170 for members of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia Food Processors Associations; and $200 for non-members. For more information and to register, go to www.rcffn.ca and click on the conference link.
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