Cannabis experts talk trends and challenges at the Niagara Food & Beverage Innovation Summit

A panel of experts discuss the integration of cannabis into the food and drink space. Peter McCourt, PhD; Peter Crooks; Kimberley Stuck and Christopher Sayeh.

An expert panel brought insight into the challenges and innovations surrounding the integration of cannabis-infused edibles to the audience at the Niagara Food & Beverage Innovation Summit at Niagara College on October 23.

The inaugural, one-day event was organized by the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, part of the College’s Research & Innovation division and held at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus. Product developers and business owners in the food space and cannabis industry spent the day learning innovative concepts and forecasted trends from experts, in areas of flavours, colours, and packaging. 

The panel was moderated by keynote speaker Skyler Webb, Director of Product Development at Cannabistry, a professional research and development company based in Illinois, United States. With his background in chemistry and food science, Webb spoke about the complexities surrounding the cannabis edible space and shared science in developing effective cannabis delivery systems – a method for providing an active ingredient to the body – such as food and beverage, sprays, and tinctures.

Skyler was joined on stage by experts to discuss the integration of cannabis into the food and drink world, the trends, food safety, and regulatory challenges in the edibles industry. Panelists included: Peter McCourt, PhD, a plant molecular biologist and professor at the University of Toronto; Peter Crooks, a neuropharmacologist and Chief Product Innovation Officer for Dosecann Cannabis Solutions; Kimberley Stuck, a leading expert in cannabis food safety and Certified Quality Auditor; and Christopher Sayeh, founder of the popular Herbal Chef™, pioneered cannabis-infused fine dining. 

With the legalization of cannabis in October 2018, Peter McCourt formed an R&D company to develop technologies to improve the genetics of the cannabis plant to formulate specific compounds in certain concentrations and ratios.  

“We see this as a huge opportunity. We don’t think cannabis will be any different than any other crop; the research just has to be done systematically,” he said. “Let’s say we could breed out the terpenes – the smells – so we wouldn’t have to do all this extraction, or others may want to breed the plants so it’s resistant to powdery mildews… we’ve done this for other crops – it’s not rocket science.”

For Peter Crooks, whose company is a Canadian-licensed dealer dedicated to developing cannabis solutions, he said the pace of innovation in this space and the regulation hurdles add layers of complexity when approaching formulation.

His products – 83 of its 130 SKUs in edibles, topicals and concentrates hitting the market before year’s end – are targeting what he calls the “big middle” – the new cannabis consumer. He said overwhelmingly consumers said they did not want to taste the terpenes in their product, so his company has focused on distillates (a cleaner concentrate). 

As for the future of the cannabis industry, Crooks said consistency is the cornerstone of consumer trust. “So how you formulate, how you extract, how you standardize and then how you formulate your cannabis extract … that maintaining the very strict standardization of that is the only way to create a product that will be consistent with a predictable effect of high quality and I think it’s going to plague the broader cannabis industry for some time.”

Skyler Webb, Director of Product Development at Cannabistry in Illinois, U.S., was a keynote speaker at the Niagara Food & Beverage Innovation Summit at Niagara College.

Consistency will be necessary in the highly regulated Canadian market; however, it’s something not always seen in its neighbours to the south. In fact, the lack of regulations in the United States affects the safety of products there, explained Kimberley Stuck, who was the first cannabis specialist for a public health authority in the nation in Denver, Colorado.

“When something is on the shelf, people really believe that it’s safe no matter what. They think the U.S. government wouldn’t allow there to be a dangerous product sold to consumers,” she said. “When it comes to cannabis, this is not the case. The fact is there’s a lot of really sketchy things.” 

She referred to the “irresponsible dosing” in edible-infused cannabis products, where one larger section of a chocolate bar could contain 1mg of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and another smaller piece as much as 20mg. However, the consumer trusts that each piece is consistent in the advertising dosage.

It is similar in the cooking industry, noted Christopher Sayegh, a biology/food chemistry professional. He said chefs might put infused butter into a pan, but have no idea how much is in the pan – not to mention that the heat (to a specific temperature) will accelerate the effects of THC.

After serving tens of thousands of gourmet cannabis-infused meals through his California-based company, Sayegh places a high value on quality and controlled consistency when it comes to cannabis-infused dosing for his guests. “If you’re going to be in a commercial setting and give something out to people and don’t know the dosage that you’re giving, it’s highly irresponsible.” 

Besides customizing individual dosing per diner, Sayeh also chooses specific strains to give certain effects for the entire dining experience. For example, during a 10-course tasting menu, the average guest will receive a total of 10mg of THC and 10mg of cannabidiol (CBD), starting with uplifting strains at the outset and ending with terpenes set to provide relaxation by the end of the meal. 

The dosing of edible cannabis products is so highly regulated in Canada, companies doing product development have to measure homogenization and potency every step of the way to hit a targeted dosage spec, explained Crooks. 

“I can’t underscore enough that having analytical validated methods internally makes a massive difference,” he said, adding there’s a strong competitive advantage for those companies who have in-house analytical capabilities, otherwise it would take some six weeks to get a result back during product development. 

Sponsors for the event included: Food in Canada Magazine; Invest Hamilton Niagara; Niagara Industrial Association; Food and Beverage Ontario; Two Sisters Vineyards; and Ontario Craft Brewers. Funding support was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre (CFWI) team offers a full suite of services to support industry innovation and commercialization of new products and processes. From new recipe development to shelf-life testing and nutritional labelling, the CFWI Innovation Centre pairs industry partners with faculty, recent graduates and students with the right expertise and equipment to meet industry’s needs. For more information visit

The R&I division publishes a monthly e-newsletter to keep people informed of the innovative projects, people, jobs, events, news and opportunities available through the work at Niagara College. If you’d like to receive this in your email monthly, just follow the link below to the R&I website where you’ll find the sign-up box.