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Understanding food

Functional Foods Sensory Laboratory officially opens at Grenfell Campus


By Pamela Gill

Our perceptions of taste, our food choices and the information we use to make decisions about food are the focus of a new lab at Grenfell Campus.

The Functional Foods Sensory Laboratory examines “functional foods” – natural or processed food products with known health benefits beyond basic nutritional needs, such as the antioxidants in blueberries, eggs enhanced with omega 3 fatty acids or the probiotics associated with yogurt.

The Functional Foods Sensory Laboratory at Grenfell.
Photo: Submitted

Support for the lab, which operates under the umbrella of Grenfell’s Boreal Ecosystem Research Facility, came from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), each of which provided $144,250, industry partner Atlantic Aquaponics, which contributed $20,000, and Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, which provided $26,000, for a total of $334,000.

The initiative is part of a larger $1.2-million project, with the industrial component located at the Industrial Partners Site in Black Duck Siding, N.L., and the academic component located at Grenfell Campus.

“The Government of Canada understands the importance of research and development to growing our economy, creating good jobs and improving the quality of life for all Canadians,” said Gudie Hutchings, member of Parliament, Long Range Mountains, on behalf of the Navdeep Bains, minister, Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and minister responsible for ACOA.

“That is why our government, through ACOA, is proud to support initiatives like this one with Grenfell Campus. This new laboratory will better position the university to create a world-class functional foods research program that will generate new opportunities for industry collaboration, innovative product development and business diversification and help grow a strong, sustainable functional foods sector in our province.”

“The establishment of a functional food laboratory in our province builds on our Way Forward commitment to grow innovation and technology in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Christopher Mitchelmore, minister, Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation.

“This laboratory will support industries that use naturally occurring products in their food or other product developments, and help fill a technological gap that no existing facility has in the province for new food product development.”

Gerry Byrne, minister of Fisheries and Land Resources, and MHA for Corner Brook, added that “the global functional foods market continues to grow and is expected to become one of the biggest trends in food science. In order to facilitate this, our government is proud to support a functional foods and sensory laboratory at Grenfell, allowing the development of a research program in functional foods production and preservation in our province.”

“This collaboration will facilitate the Boreal Ecosystem Research Facility and Memorial University to further develop its capacity and international reputation in the area of functional foods research and development,” said Dr. Kelly Vodden, associate vice-president, research and graduate studies, at Grenfell Campus.

‘Huge potential’

According to a 2014 report by the Canada Trade and Commission Service, the functional foods industry in Canada is estimated at (USD) $16.4 billion, while in Newfoundland and Labrador it is estimated at (USD) $780 million.

“It’s no surprise that functional foods are predicted to be one of the fastest growing trends in the next quarter century,” said Dr. Raymond Thomas, principal investigator of the functional foods research program and associate professor, who pointed to factors such as health-conscious consumers, increased research into functional foods’ health benefits and the ability of industry to use research findings to create new products as major drivers of the predicted growth of functional foods in the food industry.

“These trends point to huge potential for the development of new products as well as the creation of new interests in existing products to satisfy this rapidly expanding niche market.”

The functional foods lab includes computerized sensory analysis systems and softwares with multiple lighting and video recording capabilities, freezers and coolers, small food processors, specialized instrumentation for testing food properties and small equipment for food preparation (vacuum-package machine, temperature/energy controlled microwave, sous-vide machine and a slow cooker, for example), as well as a cryo-microtome for producing thinly sliced samples for spatial, qualitative and quantitative nutrient or contaminant analyses.

Determining consumers’ sensory perception

The Functional Foods Sensory Laboratory is integrated within the $8-million Boreal Ecosystem Research Facility and has unique analytical capacity to discern the chemical determinants of consumers’ sensory perception of taste, aroma, texture, colour, overall acceptance and preferences for the evaluated food.

Work in this facility and the functional foods research program is also associated with assessing the bioactivities of various functional ingredients in brain health outcomes using animal and cell models.

As such, there are several high-level research projects currently ongoing in the facility and program. They include collaborations with Harvard University, Dalhousie University, University of Guelph, Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada, Newfoundland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Land Resources, Atlantic Aquaponics and Anaconda Mining Inc., as well as several disciplines (arts, social studies, psychology, mathematics, biochemistry and environmental sciences) within Memorial University.

Dr. Natalia Prieto Vidal is the manager of the Functional Foods Sensory Lab.

The lab is managed by Dr. Natalia Prieto Vidal, a post-doctoral fellow from the University of Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain.

Expert volunteers to develop food products

The lab has recruited volunteers from among faculty, staff and the greater community who have expertise and interest in the food and beverage industry to develop finer perception for the taste, quality, texture, aroma and other qualities of food products.

The volunteers sit in partitioned cubicles with customized lighting that controls their ability to detect the colour of the food/beverage they are consuming.

“Newfoundland and Labrador has a unique climate that influences the chemical composition of local or cultivated plants, microbes and animals,” said Dr. Vidal. “A major aim of the proposed functional foods research program is to evaluate various plants, microbes and animals from the province for unique or enhanced sources of natural functional ingredients.”

Once these sources are identified, work will be done in collaboration with industry partners and our academic collaborators to create new or improved products, create new uses and interests in existing products as well as value added or secondary products. Additionally, outcomes may include the preservation of functional components and the enhancement of quality and shelf life of the products.

“Currently there are no companies in Atlantic Canada making Kabayaki.” — Louis MacDonald

Industry partner Atlantic Aquaponics and its sister company, Atlantic Canada Eels Inc., have a keen interest in working with the lab. Their facilities, located in Stephenville, Robinsons and Black Duck Siding, use land-based aquaculture recirculating technology to produce American eels.

The aim is to produce a ready-to-eat eel product (Kabayaki) for markets in Japan. The new functional food product will incorporate the benefits of selected Newfoundland berries, enhancing the functionality of the Kabayaki products developed.

“The largest market for eels is the Japanese Kabayaki market,” said Louis MacDonald, who co-owns the companies with Scott Madore, adding that discussions with existing Asian clients has already generated interest in N.L. Kabayaki. “Currently there are no companies in Atlantic Canada making Kabayaki, and there are no listed companies in Canada that purchase eels for processing.”

“We believe several other industry partners will work with this program once the first set of outputs from this program are disseminated,” said Dr. Thomas. “These collaborations will create the capacity and opportunity to develop value-added processed products from raw materials to enhance business growth and revenue generating potential of the companies.”

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