The next time somebody tells you baking isn’t rocket science, tell them
about Ted Farnworth and his development team. As a senior research
scientist in the
Food Safety and Quality Program at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s
Food Research and Development Centre in St. Hyacinthe, Que., developing
healthy food products is his forte.
The next time somebody tells you baking isn’t rocket science, tell them about Ted Farnworth and his development team. As a senior research scientist in the
Food Safety and Quality Program at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s Food Research and Development Centre in St. Hyacinthe, Que., developing healthy food products is his forte. When the Canadian Space Agency tapped Ted’s team to develop food products for astronauts to eat on the next shuttle mission he knew there would be lots of strict parameters to work with. In addition to the health and safety guidelines, the product had to be as Canadian as the beaver. Dubbed the “Canasnack,” the cookie the team developed was a great success on all levels and created quite a media storm this past fall. We caught up with Ted recently to find out how this exciting project came to be and to hear what’s next for Ted’s team and the little cookie that could.
Where did the genesis for the Canasnack come from?
The idea came from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). They see astronaut health as a niche that Canada can effectively target and they came to us with the request to develop a product. It was Jan.1, 2007, we had nothing and the shuttle flight was scheduled for summer 2007. That’s a tight turn-around but three months later, we had a prototype.
|Ted Farnworth and his team with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Food Research and Development Centre in St. Hyacinthe, Que., developed the Canasnack after a request from the Canadian Space Agency.|
How did your team approach a project like this?
It must be approached in a very holistic way. We considered not only the physical aspects of the cookie but also the emotional aspects of what the astronauts were dealing with during the mission. Mealtime can be very stressful for them. They’re away from their families, eating food that can float away, living in a grey space capsule. We wanted the food to be colourful. Cookies are certainly considered a comfort food so it’s a good place to start.”
What were the most important parameters for the Canasnack?
The most important element was taste. It had to taste good. Secondly, the CSA wanted the product to be distinctly Canadian. The Canada Arm used in the space program gives our country huge visibility every time it’s shown on a mission. We wanted to see if we could take the same tone and manner for the cookie. So, we positioned a red maple leaf right in the centre of one of the five cookies in the vacuum-sealed package. There’s a great shot of Dave Williams (the Canadian astronaut) with the cookie floating in front of him. That bright red maple leaf is displayed very clearly. It was also made with Canadian-produced ingredients such as maple sugar, cranberries, blueberries, canola oil, oats, and lactulose, a prebiotic produced in Quebec. It also had to be healthy and meet very tight food safety and quality parameters. The cookie had to be bite-sized so there wouldn’t be crumbs or dust particles to fly into eyes. Anything leaving an oily residue on packaging would be a problem. It’s not like they can take it out to the trash on the curb. If it hangs around for a few months and goes rancid – the smell would be difficult in such a small space. It’s challenging to develop something that can’t smell but tastes good.
How does the Canasnack research inform other projects you’re working on?
My team focuses on functional foods and this is where our future research will continue to be. In space, everything is amplified for the human body. Metabolism is accelerated and astronauts are exposed to quite a bit of radiation. Space approximates what happens on earth in a more dramatic way and so what we learn from the astronauts can be applied here as well.
The media frenzy around this little cookie was intense. Did the attention surprise you?
Canasnack was to be a one-shot product for the CSA. Dave Williams was to be in space for Canada Day but it got postponed until August. The attention kind of exploded all of a sudden and overnight there were tens of thousands of Google hits for Canasnack. We were fielding requests for samples from the media, the federal government and even the Royal Winter Fair. One request was for 10,000 samples and our facility isn’t really set up for that kind of mass production.”
Will the Canasnack be going up in space again?
A U.S. crew may possibly be going up to work on the Hubble Telescope this summer. Timelines can often change in space programs so that can be a challenge because the cookies must be fresh and a delay can mean brand new batches each time. Products intended for a 2009 mission must have samples signed off for end of 2008. For Russian flights, samples go from Quebec to Huston to Moscow. NASA has a menu of foods that astronauts select from and we will be working on more menu items for the space program to consider.
Will Canasnack be made available for sale to consumers?
Actually, we do plan to put out a request for proposal to see if there is an appropriate means for manufacturing the Canasnack for the consumer market. We will make an announcement at the appropriate time.
So what’s next for your team?
As we look at more menu items for space program potential, we’re working on ways to get high taste impact with minimal smell. Ninety per cent of taste is smell but you can’t have that inside a small space capsule. If the consistency is thicker, it stays on the tongue longer and that can compensate for lack of smell. Dealing with cultural preferences can also be a challenge when working with the international space program. What appeals to one culture may not to another cultural group. We addressed this with the Canasnack by putting five different cookies in each package. Each had a different flavour profile with different levels of sugar and salt. It’s a challenge we're looking forward to.
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