Category Archives: Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre

Turning squash seconds into value-added product

Fans of spaghetti squash will soon have a new option that is both sustainable and convenient, thanks to major growers Can-AM Pepper Company and ingenuity provided by the research team at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre at Niagara College.

The par-baked, frozen spaghetti squash can be prepared in as little as two minutes, and boasts a minimum shelf life of six months. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a novel solution for turning food waste into value-added consumer packaged goods.

Can-AM Pepper Company, a fourth generation family-farming operation based in Aylmer, Ontario, is a grower, shipper and packer of more than 40 different vegetables and fruits throughout the Western Hemisphere, with 10,000 acres in Ontario and an additional 10,000 acres throughout the Americas.

In the province, Can-AM Pepper grows 350 acres of spaghetti squash of the 1,680 acre-total of hard squash. While spaghetti squash – classified as a fruit – is identified as a “hard shell squash” in fact, its skin is soft and sensitive, allowing for scarring and staining. While scarring only affects the appearance, there is no harm to the edible insides and its angel hair pasta look when shredded.

However, retailers will reject any cosmetic blemishes. For Can-AM Pepper, the waste of perfectly good fruit represents a whopping 50 percent of its crop, says Donya Litowitz, Product Development Consultant for the company. Although a lot is given to food banks, much of the produce sits on the ground to become compost.

While most other fruits and vegetables with visual skin imperfections (commonly referred to as seconds) are typically sent to food processors to be canned, juiced, dried or used as food ingredients, spaghetti squash is fragile, and is also difficult to process. Conventional processes like steam blanching, for instance, will destroy the strand structure, a major marketing feature for this squash.

In fact, few processed spaghetti squash products are currently on the market due to this challenge; most products use the butternut variety for its higher solids concentration.

The idea to find an innovative solution to stop the significant wastage of its core product was the brainchild of Peter Mead, Vice President, Business Development at Can-AM Pepper, who had met with multiple R&D facilities before being referred to Niagara College, explains Litowitz.

The goal for the students and research lead Robert Lencki, PhD, at the CFWI Innovation Centre, was to create new, value-added solutions from the squash seconds by optimizing processing technologies to provide a shelf-stable product that would maintain the desirable spaghetti-like structure.

The team conducted extensive research throughout the project experimenting with creating frozen products; a dry noodle product; a refrigerated, product; fresh-cut options and also provided options for processing the wasted peels.

The goal was to get an acceptable shelf-life of at least six months, explains Lencki.

“Several processing options were examined, with one giving the best taste and texture,” he says.

Using the computer simulations as a guide, sensory and shelf-life tests were performed on samples that were processed under a range of conditions to determine optimum processing conditions, he explains. Preparation methods appropriate for consumer and food service applications were then developed for the optimized frozen product.

Litowitz says both her company and the CFWI IC research team held bi-weekly status calls throughout the year-long project, collaborating on the development, and pivoting as needed to get to a final sellable product.

“Since our team is spread out between Canada and the U.S., this was very helpful,” she says. “The agendas for the calls and documented follow-up left us with a paper trail of what has occurred and a blueprint for continuing research for future products.”

After analyzing the extensive research, the Can-AM Pepper team experimented in its own test kitchen to create and introduce a frozen spaghetti squash that is pre-peeled, cored, par-baked and ready in minutes.

The product is a low-carb and gluten-free option as a pasta replacement or a side dish with a light buttery and nutty flavour, says Litowitz. It’s also packed with nutrients: it has no saturated fat or cholesterol and is a good source of Vitamin B6, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Potassium and Manganese, dietary fiber and Vitamin C.

For consumers and Can-Am Pepper, it is a sustainable product, and a delicious solution to a crop that would otherwise be unprofitable.

The company exhibited at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference and Expo in the U.S. in July. And reactions from industry professionals and leaders have been very positive, says Litowitz, adding the company plans to launch to market within the next month.

This project was made possible with funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

To read more about the inventive new productive development happening at the CFWI Innovation Centre, see the website.

Kristine Canniff: creating a legacy of inspiring others

It’s known as the Pygmalion effect – a prominent concept demonstrating that people are influenced by the expectations put upon them. This phenomenon, proven by psychologists in classroom and corporate settings, shows that others will do better when more is expected of them. Think self-fulfilling prophecy.

For Kristine Canniff, Project Manager at Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, she readily anticipates her team of student and graduate researchers will all shine. It’s just part of her nature.

“I have high expectations of people … at first, they often don’t think they can do it and I just assume they can,” she says. “I see what their potential is and give them opportunities to achieve things; that is what’s most fun.”

Indeed, cultivating and nurturing that excellence in others is what makes her tick.

“I like to see more in people than they see in themselves,” she says. “It’s personally rewarding to help others accomplish more than they’d thought possible.”

And there’s perhaps no better arena than an educational research setting to reap those rewards – being able to witness the complete transformation of the students that are mentored during their time at the CFWI Innovation Centre.

While her expectations for her team are high, her management style is the opposite of hard-nosed; hers is a calming presence, and she looks to an immediate solution in the face of inevitable adversity.

She’s also someone who celebrates failure, believing that mistakes can bring the team together, with an opportunity to learn. “Mistakes will happen; it’s what you do about them that defines you as an individual and a team.”

Bringing the team together, helping others realize their goals, is all about managing relationships, says Kristine. And she has perfected this skill throughout her 20 years of project management experience in various sectors, including consumer packaged goods, as a consumer services program manager for Nestle Canada.

At the College she’s had the unique opportunity to develop many relationships – with students, faculty, research leads, industry partners and other stakeholders – having worked in every area of the Research & Innovation division, save for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, since arriving in 2013.

Initially hired as Industry Liaison Officer, Kristine took on the responsibility as Acting Project Manager of the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre prior to moving to her current role in the CFWI Innovation Centre in 2015. More recently, she added to her portfolio as Acting Project Manager for the Business & Commercialization Solutions team for half a year.

The last five years at the CFWI Innovation Centre’s Technical Access Centre (TAC) has seen considerable growth, to an extent she describes as “exponential.” Starting out with four food labs at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, the TAC has increased its expert team and leading-edge equipment to expand into the Agri-Food Research and Training facility within the new 49,000-square-foot Marotta Family Innovation Complex – a hub that directly supports applied research and world-class training specifically for Niagara’s wine, beer, spirits, and non-alcoholic beverage sectors.

Part of this growth is attributed to Kristine, who worked on a number of these key funding proposals that will benefit R&I for years to come.

The expansion of more equipment means more service offerings, all to meet the rising demand from industry for the College’s world-class culinary, beverage, and food science expertise, facilities, and equipment.

In just a short period, Kristine has managed projects that include: developing the award-winning Red Apple Cider beverage for Reinhart Foods, who have now expanded their label with another SKU; a line of mead products, now on the LCBO shelves; Ontario hop analysis; craft brewing quality and troubleshooting; organic bone broth product development; and crafting food safety plans for organizations, such as Iron Will Raw, to name but a few.  

There was one project, in particular, a few years back that would break the model of separating out applied research projects, course-based projects and fee-for-services projects and open the door to integrating the three pillars – a significant step for the R&I division, she adds.

Rich Products Corporation, a world leader in non-dairy toppings and innovator of other key product categories such as dessert and bakery products, approached the CFWI Innovation Centre looking for an inventive approach to cake and pastry decorating for a new product line. They wanted results in mere weeks, just as the College’s spring term was coming to a close. The request was also for services outside the division’s regular model.

“They wanted some activities done in course-based projects, and other things that required more expertise and consulting; but that integration didn’t fit our model,” Kristine explains. “So we broke the model. We were really entrepreneurial and tried something new, which is what I love about working at the Innovation Centre.”

Her team of culinary students, graduates and research leads came up with hundreds of innovative ideas for decorating baked good products and then prototyped a large number of them. Rich’s was happy and has returned as a client. It also set the groundwork for future strategic solutions for the division.

Kristine Canniff and her entrepreneurial research team creating prototypes of their innovative ideas for decorating baked good products for Rich Products Corporation.

Even with the breadth of projects and services being completed, Kristine says she still meets people and potential clients that are surprised by the offerings the Innovation Centre brings – an array of resources for new recipe development, optimization, and commercialization; shelf-life and packaging testing; nutritional labelling; packaging options; food and beverage safety, and regulatory assistance.

“I think people assume we are an institution that comes with bureaucracy and long delays,” she notes. “They don’t expect that we have access to funding, we have great minds and we can help them. They’re often surprised that we’re so industry-focused.”

It’s this commitment to these start-up and established enterprises that has her, on a typical day, taking care of allocating resources, liaising with clients, leading informal scrum meetings, ensuring projects are on schedule, and writing funding proposals. And a lot of product sampling of whatever her team is in the process of creating.  

In order to hone her palate, as well as gain a high-level knowledge of what students are learning, she has taken courses at NC in wine sensory, culinary innovation, food regulations, food chemistry and microbiology; a background that also helps her better understand the needs of industry partners.

This collection of technical and food innovation skills may seem like an untypical trajectory for someone wanting to be a writer growing up. An avid reader who loved writing fiction and poetry, Kristine describes her younger self as an introspective kid, with “different, somewhat wacky ideas.”

She did earn an undergraduate degree in Communications from Brock University – a grounding that’s surely of value today given the steady stream of successful grant proposals for government research funding she pens.

But it was her desire to help others realize their potential that always drove her.

“I like to see more in people than they see in themselves … it’s personally rewarding to help others accomplish more than they’d thought possible.”

Accordingly, she became certified as a life coach and, while living in Toronto years ago, had a full client base of personal one-on-one clients as well as corporate workshops before returning to her home base in Niagara and to project management, guiding teams to surpass their potential.

Not surprisingly, her high expectations are not reserved just for others – she’s no slouch at making and achieving her own personal goals. Last year she graduated from Leadership Niagara’s “Accelerate Civic Leadership” program, after being put forward by Niagara College; and this year her objective is to make health a priority. Today, she eats better, incorporates strength training and yoga – twice a day, and being an outdoorsy type, she hikes as much as possible.

Her latest pursuit: executing the yogic art of the handstand – a feat requiring ample strength and balance. She’s been at it a few weeks but is in no hurry. “It’s all about the journey,” she smiles. 

In the meantime, she’ll continue her life-long intention to leave her mark inspiring others. “I think that’s how we can all have a legacy; by being kind and compassionate to other people and inspiring them to grow,” she adds. “I think that’s what’s important in life.”

Kristine lives in Fonthill with her husband and two sons, who no doubt, all benefit from her positive reinforcement and her belief there’s a superstar in everyone.

A modern approach to mead

RCM Mead
The CFWI Innovation Centre team, in collaboration with Royal Canadian Mead, produced four session meads during the research project: Niagara Peach (All Day Croquet); Ontario Cherry (Quarter Life Crisis); Ontario Wildflower (Awkward Dinner); and Hopped Buckwheat (Feels Like Fridays).

Mead – a fermented beverage comprised of honey, water, yeast, and occasionally other fruits, spices or botanicals – is the oldest known alcoholic beverage in history; and it’s undergoing an urban revival. With help from Niagara College’s Research & Innovation team, Ontario’s first pure session mead from Royal Canadian Mead is now on shelves at LCBOs across the province. 

“Feels Like Friday,” a hopped buckwheat session mead, hit the liquor store shelves this past June, and is enjoying early success, says Matt Gibson, president at Royal Canadian Mead, a new venture brand from New Skew, a food and beverage innovation enterprise.

While New Skew had wide-ranging business knowledge, they required expertise in both mead product development, and honey experience, which the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre could provide. 

“We knew from Niagara College’s reputation that they had the experience and tools to help turn what was in our heads into a reality,” says Gibson. “We thought the school’s unique breadth of knowledge of honey, bee-keeping, brewing, and winemaking would all be useful tools to create our final product.”

Working alongside Royal Canadian Mead, the team at the CFWI Innovation Centre first conducted exploratory research and competitive market analysis. They discovered an overall main demographic as urban professionals, aged 25 to 40, who enjoy food, fine dining, like to explore new things, and are looking for something new and unique. They also found a sub-set of target consumers: gluten-free shoppers and low-sugar/healthier alcohol drinkers.

Says Gibson: “Our product has less sugar than most ciders and coolers on the market and is naturally gluten-free, so we’re checking some boxes there.”

Next, the CFWI Innovation Centre team brought in faculty and staff experts from NC’s Teaching Winery and Beekeeping programs to help with recipe development and ideas to produce four session-mead products.

Gavin Robertson, Winemaker and Instructor at NC’s Teaching Winery, and Research Lead for the project, says his group collaborated with the team from Royal Canadian Mead to establish parameters for a first exploratory phase recipe development, which involved nearly 30 different products.

“We proceeded through two more development phases over several months, before honing in on the four recipes that satisfied our partners,” says Robertson.

RCM Sample Meads Niagara College
The CFWI Innovation Centre team brought in faculty and staff experts from Niagara College’s Teaching Winery and Beekeeping programs to help with recipe development and ideas to produce four session-mead products.

Session meads offer a lower alcohol content than the traditional meads, which are generally 12 to 14 percent alcohol. The Royal Canadian Mead offerings are about half that at 5.6%ABV, and also carbonated and refreshing. 

“We wanted to introduce people to the category of mead, but we wanted to meet them halfway,” explains Gibson. “People are already enjoying session beers and dry ciders, so we wanted to put mead in that same frame of reference. It’s light, crisp and very crushable.”

In addition to a series of batch trials, and product testing with both chemical and sensory analysis, the research team conducted parallel business development work provided by the NC beekeeping/honey experts. All recipes used 100 percent Ontario-produced honey and adjuncts, such as fruit and hops.  

Ultimately four session meads, all with distinct flavours were successfully produced by the CFWI Innovation Centre team: Hopped Buckwheat (Feels Like Fridays); Ontario Wildflower (Awkward Dinner); Niagara Peach (All Day Croquet); Ontario Cherry (Quarter Life Crisis).

The company’s in-house design team created contemporary naming and packaging for its cans to remove the typical mead-related imagery that people usually think of: Vikings, “Game of Thrones,” kings and queens. 

“We wanted to show that just because this is an ancient drink, doesn’t mean it can’t be thoroughly modern,” Gibson notes. “The names and can designs were intended to show that, and also be highly Instagram-able.”

Royal Canadian Mead’s Feels Like Friday product is selling in 85 stores across the province and in Toronto retailers, says Gibson. Sales are about $40 thousand since launching and they’re aiming to do more than $1 million in the next 12 months.

Its second product, All Day Croquet, was packaged in early August and will be released in bars and restaurants, with Royal Canadian Mead working on getting more listings in the LCBO starting next spring.

Gibson describes this past year of innovation with the research team at CFWI Innovation Centre as a “great experience.”

 “We loved the whole prototype and research process, and learned a lot alongside the Niagara College team.” 

For winemaker Robertson, this was a chance to explore a new fermented beverage category.

“While I had experimented with honey ferments on a small scale in the past for fun, this was an opportunity to approach mead production in a really systematic way, from the hive up,” he says.

“Royal Canadian Mead was an amazing company to work with in that they understood the unique dynamics involved with working with student researchers and they really encouraged them to think broadly and creatively about the possible formulations, and used the project as a two-way educational opportunity that was effective in achieving our goals in the end,” adds Robertson. “It’s so great to see all of the work by so many people result in well-received, commercial products.” 

“While I had experimented with honey ferments on a small scale in the past for fun, this was an opportunity to approach mead production in a really systematic way, from the hive up.”

– Gavin Robertson, Winemaker and Instructor at NC’s Teaching Winery

The project was made possible with funding by the Ontario Centres of Excellence’s College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program.  

While it’s one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in the United States, in Canada, the mead industry is very young, with only a handful of meaderies across the country. Royal Canadian Mead is intent on growing the industry and becoming a leader in the session mead category. 

Mead is a wildly diverse and adaptable product since each honey varietal has its own distinct flavour, colour, and aroma based on what the bees pollinate, explains Gibson. As with beer and cider, the flavour can come from the honey, the yeast type used, and additives like fruit, hops, spices, and herbs. 

“It can be light and crisp, heavy and sweet, still, sparkling, and even barrel-aged,” he explains. “We are focused on lighter, more refreshing and consumer-friendly styles to begin, but there’s no telling how far our imagination will take us.”

The history of mead:

Mead has been referred to as the “nectar of the gods” by ancient Greeks, many associating it with magical powers and immortality. The fermented honey drink has existed for thousands of years, with a vast history in China, Africa, Europe, and North America. The world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead has been enjoyed by Vikings, Romans, and royalty throughout the ages. 

New Skew is a Toronto-based food innovation company, which owns and operates a portfolio of craft food brands. Founded in 2017 by Alex Yurek, New Skew comprises a team of former advisors to consumer food brands who recognize the dearth of innovation in the food and beverage category.

For more exciting food and beverage innovations from the CFWI Innovation Centre visit the website.

Flavour – not the flame – reigns!

Jeow hot sauce project highlight - August 2019.
Jeow Classic hot sauce creator Nan Keochanh meets with Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, Senior Food Scientist at the CFWI Innovation Centre to discuss the sauce’s unique flavour profile.

You could say hot sauce runs in Nan Keochanh’s family. In fact, there was a bowl of Laotian hot sauce at every single meal growing up.

“We are the king of hot sauce – we eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Keochanh, adding there’s a definite art in pairing the hot sauce to a particular flavour of the meal.

“Whatever type of meat it is and the way it’s cooked, there’s probably six or seven different types of hot sauces I can recommend.”

Wanting to reclaim his Laotian roots, Keochanh decided to commercialize his own personal hot sauce that friends would rave about for its fullness of flavour, contrary to many hot sauces on the market that dominate with scorch.

“The truth is, anybody who enjoys spice appreciates the flavour, and not the heat factor … I want to emphasize how we can complement any meal with hot sauce.”

And as a nod to his heritage, Keochanh chose the name for his “classic” sauce: “Jeow” – pronounced ‘Jay – Oh’ –, which is the Laotian word for hot sauce.

As a small start-up in Hamilton, Keochanh found himself having challenges with co-packers not being able to recreate his unique recipe. Not willing to compromise on his steadfast intent of flavour over flame, he looked to Niagara College’s Research & Innovation team to help fulfil his dreams.

“The biggest thing holding me back was standardizing the process and formulating the recipe in the language that co-packers use,” explains Keochanh, after realizing the importance of having his recipe written in the language co-packers would understand.

He tried four different co-packers, undergoing more than 16 trials and was still not satisfied with the flavour profile. “I was at my wit’s end and I thought I was going to give up … I didn’t know where to go and then I remembered Niagara College.”

The student and staff researchers at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre met with Keochanh with the goal of understanding his needs and the obstacles he was facing.

From left: Former Research Assistants with CFWI Innovation Centre and graduates of NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program Ankita Mathkar and Amanda Galenkamp; and Nathan Knapp-Blezius, graduate of the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program and current Research Associate at the CFWI Innovation Centre.

“The challenge was to scale up a very unique, flavourful hot sauce,” says Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, Senior Food Scientist at the CFWI Innovation Centre.

“We needed to characterize the sauce and understand the effects of processing on food quality and food safety and how the ingredients interact with each other,” she explains. “And we needed to find a reliable supplier that could provide those ingredients to us, so we could replicate it.”

Her research team was successful in optimizing the process for easier commercialization and even created some different methods, as well as some alternative ingredients in order to keep the authenticity of Keochanh’s recipe.

While his sauce definitely packs some heat, the chili peppers are flanked by various complementing flavours like fresh lime, fish sauce and roasted garlic. Keochanh is beyond happy.

“The College has come the closest to reproducing my hot sauce to date,” he says. “I was just blown away with how well they worked and how efficient they worked together with me.

“They have helped me so much. I’m elated they’ve done things that many others could not do for me.”

Vega Lugo’s team also put Keochanh in contact with a smaller, start-up co-packer, though he’s still on the lookout for a larger co-packer. He has added more restaurants to his list of customers and has increased sales by 25 per cent.

“I am currently working on putting the Jeow into small packets, similar to ketchup packets,” says Keochanh. “I’ll be using the packets as business cards as well as samples. I think this will help me break into big mainstream fast food restaurants as convenience for hot sauce on the go.”

As for his experience with Niagara College, Keochanh adds: “I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to show the world that hot sauce isn’t just about the heat.”

NOW HIRING: Wine Research Assistant position available with our Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre

Wine Research Assistant

The Wine Research Assistant will be enrolled in the Winery & Viticulture Technician program. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to work on wine related research, lab analysis and innovation projects, and may participate in networking/conference events and communications/outreach projects.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. The deadline to apply is Friday, August 23rd , 2019 at 4PM.

To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and class schedule to and reference posting ‘CFWI IC 01’.


We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

CFWI Innovation Centre offers expertise to SIAL winners

Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre had a strong presence at the food start-up pitch competition at SIAL Canada’s largest North American food event on May 1 in Toronto.

CFWI IC Centre Manager Lyndon Ashton acted as the master of ceremonies for the “Food Scale-Up Pitch” event and Senior Food Scientist, Dr. Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, served as a judge for the 14 semi-finalists, joining other industry leaders, investors, media, retailers and technical advisors, and other entrepreneurs from the food industry.

The Food Scale-Up’s Pitch Competition, by SIAL Canada, a leading name in the agri-food industry, offered eligible food entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their food product, or new technology related to the food manufacturing industry, to an expert jury. Food start-ups also received access to industry experts on business development, PR, branding, consumer trends and more.

First place prize was given to Maple Bee Nectar and received a booth at SIAL Canada 2020; Culcherd receives a 20-hr consultation with experts from CFWI Innovation Centre and two companies tied for third prize: Sachili and La Dee Da Gourmet Sauces, each earning 10-hours each with CFWI IC.

“We just saw one of the participants today who won second prize, and they said that after the pitch competition, the business just sparked, and went from 500 units per month to 600 units per week,” says Vega Lugo. “The excitement of the participants while doing their pitch was a magnet for investors and others at SIAL, the largest North American food event.”