WINNIPEG — Walking briskly through empty halls that will soon be filled by students in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science, Ryan Murphy is a young man that wants to go places in a hurry.
Murphy, 20, plans to complete a degree in food science in 2013 after only three years at the U of M. He is en route to a graduate degree in food science and is participating in a project in which students conduct consumer research on made-in-Manitoba food products.
Under the banner of Nu Eats Food Innovation, six food science students handed out snacks to university students during the last school year to evaluate their responses to the novel products.
This day, Murphy carried a dill pickle flavoured buckwheat snack, one of the products the group tested on consumers in 2012.
He explained that it was developed by an independent company in Manitoba.
“They’re working with Nu Eats for market research to see how well the product is received. (And) if there is anything they need to change before going into larger scale production,” he said.
Nu Eats was developed last year, but the project will officially be launched at the U of M this fall. The student-led initiative is a piece of a much larger puzzle, said Kay Gardiner, program manager for the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network.
“The whole idea is to advance agri-innovation,” said Gardiner, who works with Manitoba’s food sector, including the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in Winnipeg, the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie and the Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health in Winnipeg.
“There are various industry leaders in the agriculture area in Manitoba that have been talking about how to identify innovation and support innovation,” she said, noting the number of crops and related food products in Manitoba that are underrepresented in the marketplace.
If a novel, made-in-Manitoba food is going to make the successful journey from conception to retail sales, it will likely need the support of various organizations and initiatives, including Nu Eats Food Innovation.
“Really this is a micro-commercialization project, is what I would call it…. You take a crop, from pulling it off the field to a commercial product… we look at in a micro-commercialization model,” Gardiner said.
“For instance, the Manitoba buckwheat industry identified that they would like to see some product that isn’t just grain leaving the province…. We want to maximize the exposure of what we call products with no champion.”
If a Manitoban is trying to develop a healthy and unique snack, the Nu Eats students could be available for consumer research to determine if the snack is a hit, a dud or needs refinement before hitting the market.
Gardiner made it clear that Nu Eats wasn’t designed to conduct market research for food industry giants.
“We’re not looking to become the test market for a Kraft product,” said Gardiner, who helped develop the Nu Eats concept last year.
“We are going to lean to the people who are our partners, like students at the University of Manitoba and researchers at the Food Development Centre, who come to us (with) a product.”
In the last school year, Murphy and other food science students held focus groups and handed out samples of the buckwheat snack, a beta-glucan fruit bar and an ice cream product to students.
The products are labelled with a Nu Eats brand because the project isn’t about marketing a particular snack for an entrepreneur, but instead about consumer research.
The students hand out snacks and ask consumers if they like the product, if they would buy it and at what price, Murphy said.
The focus groups last 30 minutes and assess consumer reaction to the snacks.
Overall, the food generated a positive response, Murphy said.
“Well, we’re giving them free food so that generally helps. Especially for the ice cream sample,” he said, adding the flavoured buckwheat kernels were also a hit with students.
He plans to work with Nu Eats again this year because he likes the practical aspect of the project.
“With school, there’s a lot of academic stuff, you’re not really getting to (work) on a finished product, or the marketing side and consumer research,” said Murphy, who worked for Kraft Foods in Montreal this summer and received a scholarship from the Manitoba Canola Growers Association this year.
“So I thought this was a great way to round out my education,” he said.
Gardiner said the Nu Eats project offers a real world experience for students and a window into the challenges of food development and marketing.
“It’s really hard (for students) to get entry experience to show (employers) that they understand processing. This gives them that (experience).”