The Saskatchewan Food Centre is a non-profit Canadian agency that helps both small-scale food companies and major multinationals develop, produce and commercialise new products.
Located in Saskatchewan, Canada’s food hub for food production and ingredient development and processing, it has a pilot facility available for rent on a daily basis with over 300 pieces of manufacturing and processing equipment that can be used to make products as diverse as mustard and fruit juice, granola bars and bacon.
Many of its recent projects are focused on plant proteins. It has worked with companies to develop plant-based products ranging from burgers, sausages deli meats, and whole cuts in the alternative meat space to plant-based milk, yoghurt and cheese as well as vegan tuna, salmon and calamari.
“The value of ingredients is determined by what they can do in food so if it’s a protein that has a good amino acid profile and can gel, then the value comes up,” says Dr Shannon Hood-Niefer, Vice President of Innovation and Technology at the Saskatchewan Food Centre.
“Some of these up-and-coming proteins aren’t quite there yet, such as pea, chickpea, fava bean and oat. There’s not quite the same diversity in terms of the functionality of those proteins but we are helping companies develop them, and there are lots of ways to do that.”
“When we’re talking about extrusion and other technologies, wheat and soy are really easy to work with in terms of the way the proteins function. They fibrate quite nicely using extrusion and other technologies, which means we can take a globular protein and align it so it can bind into a more meat-like structure,” says Hood-Niefer. “We’ve put a lot of time and energy into extrusion [so that] when we extrude something it looks and tastes like real meat; that innovation is continuing.”
Another challenge that food developers must overcome is ensuring plant-based products are as nutritious as their animal-based equivalents.
“The bioavailability of proteins will be the next thing we need to tackle as product developers and scientists in this field. Plant-based proteins aren’t as easily digestible as meat proteins.”
The Saskatchewan Food Centre is gearing up to launch a fermentation programme that will leverage this ancient technology in new ways, looking into how traditional fermentation can change and improve protein functionality and the nutritional profile. As part of this programme, it will build out its R&D and pilot scale capacity specifically for fermentation and, through new hires, will begin looking into microbial fermentation for applications such as cell-cultured meat as well.
Collaboration across the supply chain
Hood-Niefer is convinced of the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration if the food industry is to meet consumer expectations regarding meat and dairy alternatives.
“We are going to need to see innovations throughout the whole supply chain,” she says. “Ingredient companies will continue innovating and they’ll come up with a great protein and hydrocolloid that will help the texture but then we’ll need some innovation on the equipment side to manufacture it. It’s working out how to put this complex matrix together to get the product we want.”
“I’m excited because that will take partnerships between ingredient suppliers and manufacturers and equipment companies to create the product – and that doesn’t even touch on packaging. Part of the reason we are doing this is because of environmental sustainability, and so you can’t look at the whole thing without looking at packaging. There is so much to do in the whole supply chain.”