Winnipeg Free Press: Winnipegger thrives with tasty supplement creation

The only thing five-year-old Erin Goldberg could stomach when she was undergoing chemotherapy was Kraft Dinner.

Now 29, the Winnipeg researcher has developed a plant-based nutritional supplement beverage — “not as sweet” and “better tasting” than traditional options, such as Boost — for patients struggling to eat solid food and anyone without an appetite.

Goldberg accepted the Mitacs Social Entrepreneur Award, and $5,000, on behalf of her co-workers at her Winnipeg-based start-up, ViTal Functional Foods Inc., for their product, Thrive, and work in trying to improve in-hospital nutrition at a ceremony Tuesday in Montreal.

“I was feeling extremely nauseous in the hospital and really struggled to eat, so that sort of led me to pursue my PhD in nutrition,” she said Tuesday morning from Montreal. “My favourite food was Kraft Dinner (the ubiquitous macaroni and cheese product), mostly because it was extremely bland.”

Had there been a product like Thrive at the time, she said the 139 days she spent in the hospital as a child would’ve been easier, since she would’ve been able to maintain her weight.

Alongside her co-workers — one who doubles as a registered dietitian at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre — Goldberg created the formula, which is vegan and doesn’t contain any wheat, corn, soy or dairy. It’s made of plant proteins, including pea protein, and doesn’t contain any artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners.

It comes in vanilla blueberry and chocolate mocha flavours.

“It’s not just your basic chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. It has a smooth texture and a good flavour profile,” said Goldberg, whose main research interest is sensory science.

“A lot of traditional plant-based beverages have an issue with that because they’re using rice protein, so it can be a little gritty and it’s not necessarily palatable for a lot of people.”

Goldberg said the award from Mitacs, a not-for-profit that promotes Canadian research (and an organization where she was previously an intern), is “huge” for the business, which she runs on the side — she works full-time at the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre.

“It’s another form of validation for us, that we’re on the right track.”

Thrive is expected to be commercially available in one year. Goldberg said ViTal hopes to sell the product to nursing homes and hospitals, and directly to consumers in stores and online.

Amy McGuinness, a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokeswoman, said while the WRHA doesn’t use meal replacements as a primary source of nutrition, it sometimes offers nutritional supplement beverages to patients to ensure dietary needs are met.

The WRHA is approached regularly by suppliers with new products, she added. “Any decision to add or change a product would only be done after a thorough review and analysis.”

By: Maggie Macintosh