When James Richardson International made a multimillion donation to the University of Manitoba in 2006 to set up the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, words like antioxidants, probiotics and plant sterols were mostly the stuff of the science labs, not lunchroom chatter.
Those words are heard more often nowadays, as products containing them reach the marketplace.
But promises of lowered cholesterol and improved gut health are not merely hype.
At the Richardson Centre staff are engaged in work that involves fractionating and centrifuging, milling and test tasting a vast array of food ingredients looking for proof that foods containing these components really do keep people healthy.
This is a pursuit of food as medicine, not to cure diet-related disease but to prevent it from developing in the first place.
All food is beneficial for our health, says centre director Peter Jones, who oversees its 140 staff.
“But where functional foods go is to a different level. They reduce disease risks particularly for targeted individuals. They’ll peel off pounds for people overweight, or add more calcium for folks who are at risk of osteoporosis, or reduce lipid levels for folks who have high plasma cholesterol.
“If you don’t have to fix broken people you can save a lot of taxpayers’ dollars,” he adds. The centre hopes to develop tests that could distinguish the need to use drugs as treatment versus those whose health could improve from switching to a healthier diet.
This is where the buzz around health benefits from consuming Canadian-grown pulses, including their role in controlling insulin and blood sugar and weight loss began.
Scientists here continue to document the health benefits of consuming whole grain crops in high-fibre barley foods, while other disease-intervention studies explore the health benefits of herbs, spices, canola and flax oils.
The centre has helped develop yogurt with probiotics (good bacteria) as well as Canada’s first cholesterol-lowering margarine, Unilever’s Becel Pro-Active. The Richardson Centre leads in the country with its expertise in how plant sterols can reduce blood cholesterol when formulated in food products.
Its mandate goes beyond the discovery and development of new food products for a public health benefit. It ultimately wants to benefit farmers’ bottom lines too.
Mapping out ways to improve Canadians’ diets while tackling dismal returns in agriculture is now an ongoing talking point among farm groups, agribusiness, government and citizen-led food security movements.
“Right in the middle” and “a builder of bridges” is how Jones sees the Richardson Centre positioned, as Canada moves to forge these stronger links between health and agriculture.
The centre is a partner in the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network (MARHN) that also includes the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie and the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research Manitoba (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital.
MARHN has created equity companies – seven in all to date – to link researchers, farmers, and business owners together so that the results of collaborative work ultimately benefit all stakeholders, explains MARHN executive director Lee Anne Murphy.
They did this to get all players collaborating towards, and mutually benefiting from, product commercialization as it occurs, said Murphy “because without a strong committed supply chain, a lot of this will stay just as interesting research.”
Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agriculture Producers, said Manitoba farmers see benefits accruing to them over time as Manitoba’s research cluster advances new ideas and technologies. He said he appreciates the work that’s been done to link the players.
“We’ve got everybody working together instead of in silos and that’s crucial to the long-term competitiveness of agriculture in Canada,” said Chorney, adding that farmers know they cannot remain merely raw commodity producers and will need innovative research in areas such as trait characteristics to remain competitive.
Health trait-focused research eventually pays returns to farmers. He cites canola as a key example. “Most research takes decades to come to fruition. Canola is probably the best Manitoba example of research paying off.”
– PETER JONES, DIRECTOR