To most, Winnipeg, Canada, might not seem like a hub of functional food activity, but on the snowy campus of the University of Manitoba there is a state-of-the-art functional foods research center that’s been quietly attracting the attention of Big Food, thanks to a novel approach, coupled with a commitment to grow the local agriculture-driven economy.
Founded nearly five years ago, The Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals is arguably a jewel in the agricultural crown of Manitoba, a prairie region dedicated to the export of grains, cereals and other agricultural produce.“What we’re trying to do here at the Richardson Centre is add value to that,” explained the Centre’s Director, Dr. Peter Jones.
The staff adds value in two ways. “First, we develop new products that are specifically enriched with some of the good things that the agricultural industry provides to us, like fiber-fortified breakfast cereals, or antioxidant-fortified beverages, or plant sterol-enriched spreads or juices,” Dr. Jones said. “We also produce and publish scientific information that creates bigger drag from the consumer to want to buy more of the product.”
But the Richardson Centre is far from a cookie cutter R&D clearing house. The 60,000 square foot academic institution is situated on the University of Manitoba’s Commercial Smart Park, a locale that Dr. Jones termed “an incubator area where science melds with industry.”
The Centre features an eclectic potpourri of 150 academic food science, nutrition, ag-econ and ag-engineering researchers; government researchers and five different industrial members that profit from using the Richardson Centre as a “sandbox” for their R&D endeavors.
The Centre is uniquely outfitted to develop and study a wide range of foods and nutraceutical products, spanning from grain to livestock. “In addition to a pilot plant and a full milling operation, where we can bring wheat, corn or yellow peas in and mill that commodity using a variety of approaches, we can separate out particle sizes, test what's present in that material and even extract say fibers, antioxidants, plant sterols or omega 3s,” explained Mr. Jones. “We can test ingredients, find out what’s good or bad—obviously we don’t want to go down the path of commercializing something if were concerned about any kind of health risk—then we can test it using multiple testing platforms, such as cell systems for rapid screening, animal testing using one of the most advanced animal testing facilities in Western Canada.”
The Centre is also deeply involved in human intervention trials, with five clinical trials currently underway. One of these trials involves the testing of fatty acid-enriched canola oil varieties to determine how short- and medium-term consumption might impact disease risk biomarkers like cholesterol levels. Other trials involve barley beta-glucan and plant sterols. Mr. Jones said the Centre is also preparing to embark on two new trials, the first pertaining to a range of different culinary spices, and the second focusing on dairy products.
The companies that make use of the Richardson Centre’s facilities run the gamut from mom-and-pop shop-sized entities through to Small/Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). “We have here a senior scientist and a couple of team members from the largest provincial supplier of poultry who are busy improving chicken breast offerings by adding omega 3 fats and antioxidants, right through to the biggest and the best globally,” noted Dr. Jones. “Cangene of Manitoba has a toe-hold here too and uses a considerable amount of our facility, including our animal facility and one of the pilot plant labs.”
Another company that has benefitted from the Centre’s resources is White Wave Foods, makers of Silk soy milk. Following two successful clinicals they were able to launch a phytosterol-enriched soy milk called Heart Health. “Solid scientific evidence is so important for companies looking to use a health claim as a marketing message,” said Dr. Jones. “The Richardson Center provides that solid scientific platform for those health claims to be launched.”
Though their approach and scale stands without comparison by any other R&D facility currently in existence, The Richardson Centre is not interested in being a solitary entity.
“We’re running almost flat-out, expanding with the thinking that there will be more scope in this, and certainly more centers to develop this type of approach,” commented Dr. Jones. “We don’t want to do it alone—the top tier journals in nutrition, such as the American Journal of Nutrition, they want to see safety in numbers and reproducibility in results, with studies being carried out in multiple centers.”
The Centre—which is financially supported by the provincial government, the University of Manitoba and by contract revenues—is currently involved in a multi-million dollar research project with Pennsylvania State University, David Jenkins (father of The Portfolio Diet and The Glycemic Index) at the University of Toronto, as well as Laval University’s Institute for Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods. “We work crossways and feel that this type of cross collaboration is very important,” said Dr. Jones. “We’re really trying to get an international scope going too.”
The Centre is in the process of finalizing memorandums of understanding with groups in South America, the Netherlands and also in Beijing’s Vegetable Research Center in China. A similar memorandum was recently completed with the Chonbook National University in Korea, where Dr. Jones reported that a small-sized city based on the Richardson Centre platform is in the works. “They plan to develop an entire mini town geared toward value-add for commodities,” he said. “They feel they’re in a strategic position, being at the gateway between China and North America.”
As those plans continue to come to fruition, the Richardson Centre is working hard to find real and practical ways to better manage top-line conditions like obesity and cognitive function.
“We’re looking for the miracle cure that will allow consumers to have their cake and eat it too and it’s hard to do,” said Dr. Jones. “Pea fiber, we found, shifted body fat around, providing a healthier, gynoid (pear-shaped) type of fat distribution instead of the unhealthy android (apple-shaped) distribution. We’re really interested in food items that help shut down appetite or increase satiety.
“We’re also looking at things that improve people’s feeling/mood/behavior, and particularly with an increasingly aging North American population, we’re really into protecting health in old age,” he added. “We have a retinography machine that also allows us to look at visual function in old age to, for instance, monitor lutien’s ability to protect against macular degeneration, or omega 3s which help maintain the integrity of the retina.”
Dr. Jones said the functional foods industry is increasingly more receptive to developments such as those coming out of The Richardson Centre. He cited two main factors he believed to be driving the health of the industry. “The aging population is increasingly mindful of ways to take care of themselves,” he said. “That, coupled with a little bit of a self-meltdown in the pharmaceutical industry, in that cases like Vioxx, have disrupted the public’s confidence in drugs but also the increased willingness of pharma to admit the higher side effects of some drugs. The consumers are aware of that and are actively looking for alternatives, or are looking to take nutraceuticals with the drugs to help lower the dose and side effects.”
He was also optimistic about the future of functional food industry in general, especially in his native Canada. “It appears as, at least in Canada, there’s been double digit growth every year, in almost every aspect of the functional food market,” he said. “We’ve experienced no slow down in the growth rate over the past couple of years and my sense is that this is a recession-proof industry.