Food is one of the basic necessities in life, but our food doesn’t have to be basic. Thanks to food processing, grocery shelves are stocked with edible, delicious and sustainable products to satiate our taste buds.
While it often gets a bad rap, food processing—the act of altering food from its natural state—is an essential tool to provide a wide variety of high-quality foods for human consumption. Through food processing, we are able to make advances in food science, improve food quality and nutrition, develop value-added food and feed applications, and increase the utility of crops.
“Processing makes food more edible, palatable and safe, and preserves it so it can be eaten beyond the harvest season, which also reduces amount of food that ends up in the landfills as waste,” says Rotimi E. Aluko, PhD, professor and director of the Richardson Centre for Food Technology and Research (RCFTR) at the University of Manitoba. “Food processing is also a tool that offers new and greater variety in foods (e.g., the use of plant proteins to replace animal proteins), and therefore increases the consumer’s choice, in addition to reducing carbon emission from animal husbandry.”
Manitoba’s bread and butter
Around the world, food and beverage companies are searching for ways to create the perfect food—healthy and nutritious, while still being delicious, accessible and sustainable—and Manitoba is no exception. Our food and beverage manufacturing sector is the province’s largest manufacturing sector and one that is ripe to grow. The multi-billion dollar industry represents 30 per cent of the province’s total manufacturing sales, with total sales of $6.2 billion in 2021, nine per cent higher than the previous year. Exports for processed food and beverage products were $3.82 billion in 2021, an increase of over 15 per cent than 2020. The sector is also the largest manufacturing employer in the province, employing over 14,000 Manitobans.
Food manufacturing became Canada’s largest industry in 2020, with Manitoba standing out for many reasons. “A key advantage of Manitoba for food processors is its low-cost and green source of electricity (Manitoba Hydro), excellent transportation logistics to the large US market, and excellent climate and farmland for growing high quality wheat, canola, peas, beans, oats, etcetera,” says Aluko.
Add in a business-friendly environment, state-of-the-art research facilities and a vibrant food processing sector with 792 food processing establishments, and the province has perfected the recipe for a robust and innovative food and beverage manufacturing sector. The RCFTR and Red River College Polytechnic’s (RRC Polytech) Culinary Technology Access Centre, the Prairie Research Kitchen (PRK) work with companies in the food production industry, both locally and throughout Canada, to help them research, innovate and differentiate themselves. The facilities use a variety of food processing techniques, including milling, air classifying, extrusion, wet extraction, oil pressing and analytical testing.
“Food is one of the great needs and pleasures—to be enjoyed, but also key to health and welfare for humans and animals,” says Mavis McRae, director of the PRK. “As the world changes, more people are experiencing challenges to accessing affordable and nutritious food. Innovation won’t solve all of these issues, but it is certainly where many people in the industry start to look for answers.”
According to McRae, innovation is happening at every step of the value chain, using bioscience, artificial intelligence, robotics and culinary transformations. RCFTR is also making strides in human nutrition testing, an area Aluko is looking forward to expanding. RCFTR played a critical role in studies that provided scientific evidence for the safety of plant sterols as part of the human diet and as a natural product to reduce excessive levels of cholesterol in the blood. As a result of this research, Health Canada approved a health claim for plant sterols and authorized their sale in Canada.
Another local success story is a new high-protein, plant-based food from Prairie Fava, a leading Canadian grower and ingredient supplier of fava beans, based in Glenboro, Manitoba, and Big Mountain Foods, a Vancouver-based innovator of plant-based consumer packaged goods. The team at PRK worked with both companies on product development to find new plant-based food products.
“When I go to the grocery store these days, especially the ones that have a local section, I see so many products we’ve worked on. We can’t take credit for the ideas—that is all with the companies. But we did help many companies bring their vision to a tasty reality,” says McRae.