Saskatchewan food manufacturers use innovative technologies to create healthy products including plant-based proteins, nutritional oils, teas and much more
By Joanne Paulson
Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti, killing more than 500 residents and leaving thousands unsheltered and hungry. The 2016 storm was the country’s most destructive disaster since the 2010 earthquake.
The people at Mera Food’s plant protein processing facility in neighbouring Dominican Republic knew what had happened. And they knew what Haiti needed. Food.
“It wasn’t so bad where we were, but parts of Haiti were just destroyed,” said Wayne Goranson, founder and owner of Mera Food and its parent company, Mera Group. “Our guys volunteered over the weekend to make extra product, and we loaded up the truck with nine tonnes of food – mostly soymilk – and took it across the border and did distributions in schools, Artists for Peace and Justice, city hall, everywhere we could in the southern part of the island.”
Mera Food makes shake-style beverages from soybean and other protein-rich plants such as lentils and chickpeas. Nutritionally, it’s similar to cow’s milk with the same protein and fat profile; and by all accounts, it tastes good, too.
Mera Food, based in Regina, uses the Dominican plant to supply markets in Asia and North America.
“It was a real adventure,” Goranson recalled. “Things were in really tough shape. The international press covering (the disaster) ran into us out in the countryside and said, ‘you guys are here before Doctors Without Borders and before the Red Cross. How do you do that?’
“I said, “Well, we’re from Saskatchewan. When the neighbour’s barn is on fire, you jump in the truck and you put it out. You don’t have a meeting; you just get it done.’
Mera had previously been called in by the United Nations to feed 20,000 prisoners who had been largely abandoned by the state, so they had experience in trucking food to Haiti.
“We were feeding at one school about 4,500 kids in a few hours one afternoon, and about 2,500 one morning,” said Goranson. “In the prisons we fed 210,000, so probably about 420,000 (total servings) across the island.”
This just in… protein is hot!
Protein, says Wilf Keller, is a hot item today because of the need to feed a growing global population. Plant-based protein, like the Beyond Meat burger, even makes the news.
“This is being driven by societal change, with the millennial generation, the affluence in China, environmental sustainability issues and so forth,” said Keller, CEO of Ag-West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association.
“I do see great opportunities for Saskatchewan because we create so much raw material.”
Pulses are big. Yellow peas, for example, are being used for meat and dairy alternatives, as are lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans.
“A lot of this in the U.S. was driven by soybean, but soybean does have some challenges with allergy and the protein balance and so forth, so I think there are better opportunities for this part of the world looking at these other pulses.”
Canola, Keller added, offers another protein opportunity, while oats, flax, mustard and quinoa are other crops with a future.
Exporting is good, value-add is better
Although Saskatchewan’s food processing industry has doubled in size over the last decade, less than 10 per cent of raw pulses and other crops are being processed; most are sold as bulk commodities. There’s a long way to go, but that also means vast opportunity, Keller said. The new federally-supported Protein Industry Cluster is just getting underway and should lead to more processing.
The industry has grown considerably in the last few years, said James Kettel, Executive Director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Trade and Value-Added Branch. It defines value-added as food, seed, and bioproduct manufacturing.
“Our food and beverage industry includes more than 300 processors and over 5,000 employees as of 2018. Our value-added revenue … has grown more than 50 per cent between 2012 and 2018, reaching $5.2 billion last year.
“We have a target to increase our value-added sector from $3.5 billion in 2012 to $6 billion in 2020.”
Kettel noted that the sector is important to both the Province and primary producers.
“It creates a local demand for some of the product and lowers the shipping cost. There are opportunities too, in rural Saskatchewan. Agriculture is a large part of our rural base but not everybody wants to farm in rural economies, and we need more opportunities out there — in urban economies as well.”
Soy, Soviets, and submarines
Opportunity often requires technology, and so it was with Mera Food. Goranson, an engineer, has built an international business around disruptive technologies in several sectors. In the case of Mera Food, it’s hydrodynamic cavitation.
For those unfamiliar, think of The Hunt for Red October. In the movie, one of the crew tells the captain the submarine is “cavitating” — too many water bubbles are being generated, and the propeller is about to dissolve. This basic action of water is bad for a ship, but good for soy.
“The underlying core technology comes from the military complex from the former Soviet Union,” Goranson said. “They had developed some technology to actually dispose of garbage in submarines, take big particles and turn them into little particles, silently.
“We were able to turn it into a controlled activity. We’re taking whole beans, lentils or chickpeas or yellow peas, expose them to those bubbles and it breaks down into tiny pieces.
“That creates heat. Digestive inhibitors or enzymes and flavours and smells go away. It’s a neutral product which is protein and fat. We make hot dogs and shakes and anything you can make out of milk like yogurt.”
Saskatchewan food manufacturing doesn’t stop with protein, however; nor with high-tech processing. At Air Ronge, in the province’s boreal forest, a very different product is brewing. Tea.
Something brewing up north
Boreal Heartland was founded by the Keewatin Community Development Association (KCDA), a 23-year-old non-profit with a mission to provide career and economic development in the North.
“Right now, we’re focusing on the non-timber forest sector, trying to develop an anchor business the sector can build around,” said CEO Randy Johns. “When we started looking at the sector, we looked at the opportunities. We saw right away some opportunities in bulk herbs.
“There were some specific markets there, but not enough to do a sustainable operation. We started looking at value-added products. The teas and mushrooms are value-added products, but the processing is fairly straightforward.”
Boreal Heartland purchases foraged harvests from local people and processes the products in a certified facility.
“One of our main teas is a fermented fireweed tea,” Johns said. “We buy the fireweed. We have people strip the leaves by hand from the stalks; then those leaves go to the second stage of the process, which is grinding.”
Once ground, the leaves are fermented and dried.
“When you’re working with fermented product, you’re walking the line between what you want and spoilage. Mould is your enemy.”
The fireweed is then dried and blended with other herbs such as mint and packaged and sent to retailers.
“Last year we made these products to experiment with and then we ran out of product. All our retailers are waiting for new product to come in,” said Johns.
“We have independent retailers at this stage. Right now, we’re with eight in Regina, Saskatoon, Meadow Lake, Beauval, and La Ronge. We’re looking to expand that. We’re starting to look at some distributors. We need to do more volume to make it sustainable.”
KCDA received help to do just that in late July, when Western Economic Diversification announced $975,000 in Regional Innovation Ecosystem funding to scale up the non-timber forest sector, including teas and mushrooms. Boreal Heartland also dries, processes and packages chanterelles and morels.
It takes a village
Government help such as this is highly beneficial in creating what Mark Pickard, founder of Saskatoon’s InfraReady Products, calls the “positive enabling environment in Saskatchewan for food ingredient manufacturers.”
InfraReady began in 1998 by using infrared technology to quickly partially-cook pulses in the company’s unique manufacturing system. Since then, InfraReady has added many other products and a proprietary crop — purple wheat — to its business.
Today, the company is receiving capital assistance from Saskatchewan Lean Initiatives in Manufacturing (SLIM) to improve operational efficiency, “and that is key to remaining competitive,” said Pickard. Various costs and taxes are rising, but Pickard notes he can’t raise his prices to customers at the same rate.
“So the only way to survive is to become more operationally efficient, and that is to reduce the cost per unit that we produce. We need some assistance from the enabling environment.
“We’re spending close to a million dollars on equipment that makes us more efficient.”
“Our business is built on either helping a customer solve a problem or creating an opportunity for them. That’s really what gives our business vitality. It’s why I go to work in the morning, and I think it motivates many of us here,” said Pickard.
“One of the new crops is purple wheat, relatively rich in anthocyanins (flavonoids) and phenolic acid compounds that have a demonstrated positive physiological effect in humans. We’ve done some research with Agriculture and AgriFood Canada and Guelph University’s Department of Human Health and Natural Sciences.”
“We created prototype purple wheat products, and they were fed in a clinical trial to determine their potential health benefits. That research is now starting to be published.”
InfraReady’s purple wheat ingredients include flours, flakes and meals; and the company produces a precooked lentil product called NutraReady — a meat additive that preserves colour and flavour, and extends shelf life.
“We’ve long been involved with whole grains and whole plant ingredients,” Pickard said. For example, “we don’t fractionate pea protein. We prefer to sell a precooked whole pea flour.”
Investing in the future
Kettel notes that SLIM is only one such program supporting the value-added sector. The Province also invests in research, such as its $17.5 million investment in the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, which is dedicated to diversifying, processing, and commercializing new products. The ministry also funds three research chairs in lipids, proteins, and starches, and supports other programs that provide tax incentives, training, and market development. Since 2013, it has invested $50 million in related research, infrastructure, and programming.
The next oil boom
Healthy oils constitute another product sector Saskatchewan is known for, and outside the massive canola industry, Bioriginal Food and Science Corp. is at its forefront. Established in 1993, its first major product was borage oil, considered the highest plant-based source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
“Since then, our product line has grown to include dozens of plant and marine-based oils, nutritional seeds and proteins and a wide variety of nutraceuticals,” said President Joe Vidal.
“We focus on fostering shorter supply chains by getting to know the producers and growers directly and then manufacturing our products in facilities we own,” he said. “Many of our manufacturing processes are developed with the final products in mind so that we can ensure our products are meeting our clients’ nutritional needs.”
Traceability is key, said Vidal. The company documents its processes and shows customers how products are sourced, tested, and delivered. The products are formulated for the nutraceutical and food industries.
“We work closely with clients to keep them on the leading edge of new ingredients and technologies,” he added. “Our expert team of innovators and experts has the knowledge and insight to anticipate trends in the industry, determining which ingredients will be successful drivers of growth for our customers.”