Dr Keisha Roberts has a healthy obsession with nutrition that she has channelled into a consultancy service and a specialty flour-based products business targeting people with chronic non-communicable diseases.
Healthy Options Consulting Limited and Healthy Options Foods Limited both operate out of the Oor Jou Spa Wellness in Port of Spain.
“In 2007 I did a PhD in Human Health and Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada. Around that time there was an upsurge in chronic non-communicable diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases. Health Canada received funding in order to develop foods that could combat these diseases, so a lot of research was done into what we call bioactives, or natural plant ingredients that we can add to foods that work in place of drugs.
“I was one of the most successful candidates in applying these ingredients to flour-based products. Now I’m able to develop breads, cakes and pastries that can actually help people control their blood glucose level, as well as control the amount of insulin that is being excreted.”
Dr Roberts said one of the issues she has noticed in the local health sector, especially regarding obesity and Type 2 diabetes, is that people always look at the effect of a food on the blood glucose alone. “What we did in Canada was look at the effect of a food on your blood glucose and your insulin. What we found from the research was that a lot of the foods we thought were healthy because they reduce the amount of glucose in the blood, actually weren’t healthy because that reduction in glucose was from an overproduction of insulin.”
She cited chocolate-based products as an example. “We had a lot of information about some these products being very healthy. But when you look at the amount of insulin you have to excrete in order to keep your blood sugar down, they really aren’t.”
She said adding bioactive compounds to different types of foods cause a natural reduction in the blood sugar and the amount of insulin the body excretes in order to metabolise food. “The bioactive I’m using now, I’m not disclosing it to anybody, is very potent. Internationally, it has actually received approval for the use for the treatment of weight management and blood glucose. It’s approved by Health Canada, the European Union, and the American Food and Drug Administration. It is all plant-based, nothing is artificial so there are no side effects,” she said, giving the assurance that it is not a cannabis derivative.
Dr Roberts sits on the TT Food Advisory Committee and is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Nutritionist and Dietitians. “Currently I have all the supporting documentation for my flour-based products so I can prove to a court of law that it is legitimate.
“I personally make the breads, because the way they are made makes a big difference in their efficacy. A lot of my work is published but I actually developed a novel method of making breads that is not part of the literature because you always have to keep your lagniappe out of the literature,” she chuckled.
Over the years she has developed different types of formulas for different types of pastries, and recently served them at a catered corporate event, with the planner’s knowledge, of course. “I (catered) their food plates and incorporated the bioactive into about 50 to 60 per cent of the product that they ordered. So that even though they were having delicious food it would not have negative effects on their blood glucose.”
She said one of the things she wants to do is to provide patrons at Carnival fetes with some of her products so that people who are diabetic, have heart disease and hypertension can still feel free to enjoy the food. “If you are able to have the options to have food that assures your blood glucose and insulin are being managed then it’s not derailing your goal of managing your weight.”
Dr Roberts said initially she had a big problem with getting the tastes right. “My PhD actually took five years, with two to two and a half years working on developing the products where the organoleptic properties - odour, flavour, taste, smell, texture - were right.” And because in Canada she had access to all the equipment to do the tests quite easily, she was able to adjust formulas to ensure that the organoleptic property was very close to the original. But when she returned to TT in 2012, she had to do some further adjusting to adapt to the local cuisine.
“When I made a bread or cake in Canada using the margarine there, the flavour, texture and grain size of the product was completely different to the margarines here. I had to keep adjusting the recipe until I got it right based on the chemical composition of our margarines.”
She said people can also order pizza and sada roti, and when asked by WMN about the possibility of fruit cakes, pastelles and roti, she said, “You know I have not considered that. You’re giving me ideas here.” But she did say that bioactive infused teas is in the making.
“What we have found is that the most potent way to have a physiological or metabolic effect in a person is to consume it (bioactives) with a liquid like a soup or a tea. So what we have decided is to launch our own brand of teas.”
But that, she said, is still in the research stage. “I believe that no matter what type of food product you are bringing out, once you are saying to the public ‘this is going to be beneficial to you’ you always have to have the documentation to prove what you are saying.”
She is hoping that in the next few months she will start getting orders from supermarkets.
“Providing a supermarket with 100 breads a day or a week is something I can do now,” but in the long-term she is hoping to either sell the rights to her method or become a consultant to one of the big baking companies.
“I have to be realistic. My husband and business partner Sonny Williams and I are hoping that after I have tested this on the market and proven the concept that hopefully some company will come and buy the rights, or take me on as a consultant to help adjust their products. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension are big problems in Trinidad and Tobago, and you know how Trinidadians love their bread. Carbohydrates are essential for health, so it’s not to say you can remove carbohydrates completely from your diet. So why not have carbs in a form that is better for you?”
At the spa Dr Roberts has nutritional interventions, “because when you have someone with a chronic non-communicable disease the first line of defence should be nutrition not pharmaceutical. Pharmaceuticals is easier but more expensive in the long run.” And her clients are not just spa customers. “I prefer when my clients are referred to me by their GPs because it is a team-based approach. The GP sends information about the client and what they need to happen, it’s easier and more medically sound.”
She said she is legally allowed to work with doctors and seek information from them because she is registered as a public health nutritionist with the council related to medicine. “This is not alternative medicine. The research is fuelled into the pharmaceutical industry and fuelled into the medical industry,” and her services are covered by insurance once the client is referred to her by a medical doctor.
She also offers free services to corporate clients. “I touch base with the Health and Safety departments and I go in and do a 20-30-minute Power Point presentation on a topic to be determined by myself and the client. Stress management is by far the most popular. And it’s a learn-at-lunch so I don’t take away from their day. They eat their lunch and I make a presentation. I get to introduce my breads and services and they get a free presentation. Everybody wins.”