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Embrace Foods corners the gluten-free market

With the demand for Embrace Food’s gluten-free quinoa cookies and bars growing rapidly, founder Anastasia MacLean realized she needed more than just a bigger kitchen. She needed the expertise of the food scientists at FIRSt.

MacLean came to George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt) to help her develop scaled-up formulas for two of her Nature’s Qu products. Any avid baker can tell you that doubling or even tripling a standard recipe can upset the careful chemistry of the ingredients. Principal Investigator Moira Cockburn explains the challenge was “making sure that what we did in our lab was reproducible in [Maclean’s] facility.”

Embrace Foods makes quinoa-based products for people with gluten-sensitivities, including Celiac Disease. Given that one out of every 130 North Americans has Celiac Disease, the market for gluten-free products is considerable. Yet, there aren’t many options for prepared snacks and cereals that don’t contain gums or starches. So it’s no surprise that Embrace Foods has found its market hungry for more.

MacLean reflects that as the batch size grew, so did the complexity. “Gluten-free products try to mimic the molecular structure of products containing gluten to get the chewy texture and air pockets. If you don’t use the gums and starches, the trouble is trying to get things to hold together without the ‘gummy’ mouth feel.”

In addition, her product needed a unique, specially tailored baking product. “In a regular baking pan, we had to cook the bars longer to get the middle to hold together,” she explained, with the excess, overcooked sides shaved off and discarded. This meant losing a fraction of every batch—an unnecessary waste that added up in the long run.

To solve this problem, FIRSt called on George Brown’s engineering expertise. Jamie McIntyre, a professor and researcher in Mechanical Engineering, tasked two of his students with designing a special pan that would cook the bars more evenly.

The cross-disciplinary experience was great for students, says Cockburn. “It allowed students to collaborate and to offer solutions from different perspectives.”

MacLean was delighted with the results. From the collaboration with FIRSt, she took away successfully scaled-up recipes, four custom-designed pans, and the resources to grow as a business.

This applied research project was funded by Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).