Let’s eat: The new frontier in Saskatchewan’s commercial food processing

Photo provided by Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre).

Food preservation and processing is not a new concept. People have been drying, salting, smoking, and fermenting food for centuries. As the pressure for food rises and trends change, so does the need for innovation in processing.

The beginning

Saskatchewan Food Industry
Development Centre (Food Centre).

Saskatchewan, aptly referred to as Canada’s breadbasket, has some of the richest soil in the world. Known for its agricultural exports, surprisingly, very little commercial food processing was done in the province prior to the 1990s when a committee exploring options to assist the Saskatchewan food processing industry in expanding its market opportunities incorporated the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre) in October 1997.

The Agri-Food Innovation Fund Strategic Area Committee for food processing (SAC) conceived the Food Centre. Over a one and a half-year period industry, university and government representatives met to determine what resources were needed to grow the food industry within Saskatchewan. In addition to these efforts, Saskatchewan Agriculture & Food conducted an “Analysis of the Saskatchewan Food Processing Industry” (including a focus group session with the Saskatchewan Food & Ingredient Processors Association Board of Directors) in May 1998, and Food Centre staff toured and interviewed food centres from British Columbia to Quebec. The conclusion
was that the Food Centre should target the following:

  • Develop a specialized pool of expertise within the Food Centre, targeting the development of provincial industry strengths.
  • Improve skills of processor employees and to increase the pool of qualified potential employees, and
  • Work with the existing resource providers wherever possible in the provision of services, and to continually identify the gaps in services.

The Food Centre began operation on an initial Agri-Food Innovation Fund (AFIF) endowment funding of $8.5 million with additional $1 million for renovation of a commercial kitchen and equipment. Industry and resources provided $2 million for construction of the pilot plant in 1998 and the Food Centre opened in 2001.


Working on food in the Food Centre.

In 2019, the Food Centre received further funding, under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), to expand the Agri-Food Innovation Centre by another 17,500 square feet. Phase 1 of the expansion was completed in spring of 2020 and has added a commercial extrusion processing facility, incubation suites, added storage and increased capacity to support exploration of novel uses from locally grown inputs to create greater value for the agricultural sector, specifically the plant-based protein market.

“Saskatchewan is recognized worldwide for the quality of its crops. It only makes sense to transform quality crops into quality food products. Saskatchewan is the largest exporter of lentils and dried peas and a significant producer of chickpeas. Pulses in general are gaining ground domestically because consumers that demand gluten-free or vegetarian foods can eat pulses,” explains Dr. Mehmet Tulbek, Food Centre president. “Over the past several years, we have assisted many clients to launch plant-based food products, such as roasted pea snacks, extruded puffs, vegan jerky, ground ‘beef’ and protein curls. The Food Centre has been working with high moisture meat analogues (HMMA) for over a decade. Our ideation and creativity in food applications has drawn the attention of fortune 500 companies. Our biggest ‘complaint’ is that ‘it tastes too much like meat’. Not a bad complaint to have.”

Plant-based diets traditionally were only popular among vegans and vegetarians but are now gaining traction among a wider segment of consumers. The Food Centre realized the tremendous opportunities for Saskatchewan agriculture in the plant-based foods sector.

Driven by a growing population and consumers who are making more sustainable, health-conscious food choices, analysts forecast the market for plant-based protein and alternative meat to reach a whopping $85 billion U.S. dollars by 2030.

Advanced manufacturing systems driving innovation

The Food Centre utilizes computer programs and modelling software systems for advanced manufacturing technologies and techno-economic calculations. Advanced manufacturing and data-driven process analysis are currently offered through the program and gaining traction with clients, including:

  • Process engineering and design
  • Process simulation with process/equipment flow charts
  • Techno-economic analysis (TEA) with economic evaluation reports including CAPEX, OPEX, ROI, Profitability and Sensitivity analyses.
  • Scale-up/down process modelling
  • Co-product stream valorization
  • Process optimization/prediction/grouping models
  • Automatic control loops identification
  • Models to control the production line

“This advanced manufacturing initiative assists us as a vertical integration partner for extrusion, ingredients, fermentation and bioengineering, product development, etc., helping companies understand and make meaningful decisions based on the data processing methodologies,” Tulbek elaborates.

The future

The second phase of the Food Centre expansion is expected to be completed in 2023. This phase of expansion will see added technologies to explore unique ingredient manufacturing practices and fermentation to offer pre and post processing in filtration, separation, drying and convert bio and plant materials using ingredients derived from plant-based sources to meet consumer demands for clean label and natural products.

“As we expand our capabilities with the Advanced Food ingredients Centre (AFIC2), fermentation and bioengineering technologies will be an important technology for the Food Centre, which will help our clients commercialize new products,” says Tulbek.

In addition to traditional fermented products like beer, wine, and yogurt, fermentation is currently being explored and used to produce plant-based and/or cultivated products. For plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy products traditional fermentation will be implemented to improve the taste, texture, digestibility, and nutrients whereas biomass and precision fermentation technologies will be combined with plant-based ingredients to make better plant-based meat. Like plant-based meat, fermentation-derived proteins will be important ingredients. Products such as mycelium, microalgae, microorganisms, and fermented plant proteins sustaining the sensory experiences and the improved nutritional aspects will be produced and commercialized by utilizing feedstocks, which are low cost industrial and/or agricultural side streams.

“We are looking to add sustainability and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) services to the Food Centre core programs which we will focus on analyzing foods and ingredients from farmgate to fork in terms of greenhouse gas, water and carbon footprints and provide guidance to companies in food and ingredient manufacturing space,” Tulbek explains. “Another program we plan to add is sustainable processing solutions for food ingredients. The Food
Centre plans to implement clean label, low-cost and energy efficient processing technologies which will help assist food and ingredient manufacturing companies in Canada.”

Recognized for its leadership in food safety, training, innovative product and process development, interim processing and extrusion of new and unique ingredients, technical troubleshooting, the Food Centre has increased the presence of local food products in the marketplace, having helped over 460 businesses develop and process over 1,000 food related products to date.