Benefiting Canadians, from farm to fork

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Growing Canada’s plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector provides as many benefits as plant-based products themselves. And with everything from new market options for farmers, to a wider selection of healthy products on grocery shelves, there’s something for every Canadian to enjoy.

As more businesses and organizations across Canada become more involved in the plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector, these benefits will only become more plentiful.

“The sector has been growing in leaps and bounds and market reports indicate there’s lots more to come. This has led to an increasing interest in agriculture and new innovations including plant-protein products,” Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI) Managing Director Jacqueline Keena said. “This is being demanded all over the world, from all age demographics, and especially young people. Even before the pandemic, millennials were being more intentional about what they ate, what the ingredients were, where it came from and how it was produced. COVID-19 placed this spotlight on our food supply chains and systems and this has only amplified young people’s interest in their food and their consumption decisions.”

Maynard Kolskog, research chef with Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Centre for Culinary Innovation, has had a first-row experience in this growth in demand. While 90 per cent of the work he does in his kitchen now revolves around plant-based foods, it hasn’t been long since he didn’t work with the products at all.

“That’s pretty much all I’ve been working on ever since I started doing this almost eight years ago,” Maynard said. “The majority of our clients want plant-based food products developed. That’s kind of where my expertise has grown into, whereas I really didn’t know anything about this at all 10 years ago. So for me, I have this great job that has to do with the plant-based boom and market.”

As part of building this expertise, Kolskog has been looking for ways he can help add to the benefits plant-based foods and ingredients present to Canadians. In particular, he’s interested in their health benefits.

He explained that while plant-based foods present several nutritional benefits, there’s work that can be done to enhance their protein contents, particularly to those of animal products, which are considered to be high-quality proteins due to their amino acid profiles.

Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and CEO of Enhanced Medical Nutrition (EMN), agreed with this sentiment, adding that Canada could benefit further by expanding its full plant-based foods value chain domestically.

“If the sector were to grow, improvement could be made to expand Canada’s ability to keep all activities that comprise a plant protein’s value chain within this country,” he said. “Additionally, a growing sector would also allow for more research to be conducted on the characterization of novel plant proteins, including protein extraction processes that preserve protein quality and functionality and formulation advances to overcome flavour, texture and solubility challenges. More research could also be conducted on the nutritional benefits of plant proteins, particularly those that have been processed such as plant protein isolates.”

Collaboration across the entire plant-based food and ingredients value chain can help achieve these goals.

“Key collaborations with the private sector, government and academia will help lead the way in the development and especially the integration of new innovations for the industry,” Keena said. “The pace of innovation is moving too quickly; we need all sectors of the industry to collaborate in order to seize the opportunity.”

This starts at the farm level, where processors like Hailey Jefferies, co-founder and CEO of Prairie Fava, are working directly with companies involved in fava breeding and testing new varieties that have the potential to boost everything from the protein content to the taste of plant-based ingredients. And while this leads to some impressive end results for consumers, it also means important benefits for processors and farmers.

“Because of the plant-based movement, it’s given farmers more options for crop rotation,” Jefferies said. “More research is being directed to the development of fava varieties, not only to improve agronomics, but also important quality attributes such as protein. We are excited to be assessing whether there are certain traits that are better for ingredient processing than other traits.”

These benefits don’t just affect farmers and processors, however. A more varied crop rotation leads to healthier soils and a stronger environment, while new crop varieties lead to plant-based ingredients with qualities such as higher protein content and improved texture.

This ripple effect is appreciated by consumers, ingredient processors, food manufacturers and other companies along the value chain. This includes EMN, which builds nutrition products for the healthcare population, and Infinit Nutrition Canada (INC), which specializes in sport nutrition for ultra-endurance athletes. Together, EMN and INC are working with McMaster University to clinically validate a new plant-based protein supplement utilizing Canadian-grown crops. Protein content and texture are both important factors for this development, which targets consumers for whom the consumption of high-quality proteins is necessary for a successful recovery from surgery and intense athletic events.

“Although the plant-based population is willing to compromise on taste, texture and other sensory attributes, if we really want to see expanded growth in this area, the products have to be better,” INC CEO Darcy Haggith said. “Our early prototypes have shown that we can produce a ready-to-mix plant-protein supplement that tastes great, is not gritty and has the same levels of protein and key amino acids as the very best whey isolates on the market.”

Haggith and Zimmerman, along with their teams, look forward to the day their plant-protein supplement can help patients and athletic individuals across Canada achieve their protein needs. For now, however, they’re enjoying the benefits that the growth of the country’s plant-based foods sector has brought their companies.

This includes everything from an easier path toward commercializing their products, to an increased number of jobs available on their teams.

“This growth has spurred an interest among consumers to learn more about plant proteins and a demand for more nutritious, better-tasting and versatile products,” Zimmerman said. “This demand, combined with investment from Protein Industries Canada, has resulted in the creation of new jobs within our company, allowing us to take a competitive stance in the healthcare market with the development of our plant-based protein supplement.”