With a 25-year career as a research professor, including with one of the top-ranked agri-food universities in the world, it is no wonder Robert Lencki, PhD, is considered the cream of the crop in his field.
Prior to retiring from academia seven years ago, Lencki spent the previous 23 years with the University of Guelph as an educator in their elite food science program – this following his professorship at Université Laval in Québec City.
Throughout his professional life, Lencki became a highly regarded authority in food processing design and optimization, product development, packaging and food chemistry.
After earning a doctorate in Chemical Engineering (he also has his PEng designation) from McGill University, and while all his classmates ventured out to Alberta for the first big oil boom, Lencki went to work for Procter & Gamble (P&G) Canada. He gained experience in product development for big names like Crisco shortening, Duncan Hines cake mixes and Jif peanut butter.
The food engineer and scientist is widely published and has papers included in prestigious publications, such as the Journal of Chemical Reviews, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the American Chemical Society.
When he retired from the academic community, Lencki says he was happily enjoying his cottage up north and working on his book and not actively seeking out consulting work. However, his phone kept ringing.
“If something interesting came up, I’d go for it,” he recalls thinking.
The something that truly piqued his interest came when he got a call in 2019 from a previous student of his at the University of Guelph, Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, now senior food scientist at Research & Innovation’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre. She told him about a particular research project and asked if he was interested in providing his expertise.
“It sounded like a fascinating challenge to save food wastage from millions of pounds of produce,” says Lencki, who has been a research lead ever since, with the CFWI Innovation Centre at Niagara College’s Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
That project was with industry partner Can-AM Pepper Company, an Aylmer, Ontario-based major grower, shipper and packer of fresh produce for the western hemisphere. One of its core products is spaghetti squash, where every season sees upwards of 40 per cent of food waste due to visual skin imperfections in the sensitive produce. Retailers will reject squash with excessive scarring, even though it’s completely edible.
Can-AM Pepper was looking to capitalize on the spaghetti squash seconds.
Typically, with butternut and other hard-shelled squash, growers process the extra, freezing and packaging chunks; but with spaghetti squash the processing is much more challenging, explains Lencki. 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.
“It’s very fragile, very delicate and will just disintegrate, and loses all the fibres and turns just to baby food,” he says.
The Food & Beverage Innovation Centre research team, led by Lencki, conducted extensive research experiments, including sensory, shelf-life and preparation tests. A frozen spaghetti squash that is pre-peeled, cored, and par-baked was developed and was commercialized by Can-AM Pepper.
While this challenge involved bringing a new product to market, other projects he has worked on have focused more on improving the efficiency or helping to scale-up current processes. Often, suggestions, while individually only improving the bottom line by a few per cent, can in total lead to significantly increased profitability, he explains.
“One client wanted to freeze soft cheese in order to extend shelf-life, but we demonstrated that this led to an unacceptable loss in product quality,” he notes. “Unfortunately, not all projects have a happy ending.”
Lencki describes the distinctiveness of working on real-world projects with industry partners at R&I: “Compared to many of the projects I worked with at the University of Guelph, which tended to be more theoretical and long-term, those at Niagara College are generally focused on quickly solving specific industrial problems,” he says.
“Industry is happy because they have a new or improved process and students learn to problem-solve and achieve important project milestones.”
This same industry will soon have access to new product development labs and a beverage and liquids R&D pilot processing facility – all part of dedicated research space in the recently opened Marotta Family Innovation Complex, which includes the Food & Beverage Innovation Centre’s Beverage Centre of Excellence.
Lencki is looking forward to having the new facility, with state-of-the-market equipment, at his fingertips. “We will also be able to produce larger product quantities for test markets or even do small-scale co-packing.”
Apart from his consulting work, Lencki volunteers his time to help improve food processes in developing countries, and recently finished a project with Bolivian peach and strawberry farmers.
“Their postharvest losses can be as high as 40 per cent, so I was helping them develop improved packaging and handling procedures to minimize waste.”
Lencki lives in Guelph, Ont., where he’s still working on his book.