After graduating from fifth form at Providence Girls' High School, Dr Keisha Roberts opted not to go the traditional route of A’ levels, but instead pursued diplomas in home economics technology and dietary technology at the John Donaldson Technical Institute.
In hindsight, Roberts realises she continues to pay homage to the foundation she obtained at John D – the institute at which she discovered a passion for finding ways to achieve healthy lifestyles through optimal food preparation.
Today she holds a PhD in Food Science and Nutrition from the faculty of Human Health and Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada, and last month she launched the Healthy Options Bakery selling products made from a her own Healthy Options Fibre Powder brand – a fibre powder she developed based on research she did while studying in Canada. She said it lowers the glycemic index of foods and may help with weight, glucose and insulin management. To her, it is a tangible manifestation of much of the research she has undertaken over the years.
She recalled how her interest was piqued by a John D lecturer who had directed the class to integrate a crushed vitamin C tablet into the sweet dough recipe that was being prepared. This propelled her directly into her “aha” moment.
“I was just 17,” she told WMN, “and a light bulb went on in my head.”
She immediately visualised the possibilities of how this new knowledge could impact the life of her diabetic grandmother and others like her. The notion of being able to integrate medication into flour and other carbohydrate foods excited her.
Out of her research as a PhD student, Roberts did six papers that were published in high-impact journals, and she was even invited to China to present her work in 2008.
“While I was doing my PhD I got a scholarship through the Hydrocolloids Conference to go to a conference in China to present my work because it was novel, in that I was able to successfully develop foods to assist with the management of blood glucose and for people with type 2 diabetes mellitus. In 2007 the government of Canada, through Health Canada was focussing on developing foods for metabolic syndrome and I was one of the researchers.”
She impressed the panel with her capacity to detail the scientific processes which take place when food is prepared in different ways, and at the same time detail recipes for the dishes, with the attendant methods and techniques which will yield the tastiest outcomes.
After completing her studies in 2012, Roberts decided that life in Canada was not her preference and returned to TT with her family – her husband Sonny Williams and her children. She had begun making products using her flour available to a limited number of customers on a very small scale. They were always well received, with her rum balls and bread pudding being favourites. She was spared from renting commercial spaces from which to sell her items due to the generousity of a woman she describes as “the best mentor ever,” Antoinette Maunde, who made a space available to them at no cost. Eventually, she and her husband bought a house in Central, renovated downstairs and converted it to accommodate the bakery.
She recalled how hard she worked, with Williams’ support, to refine and perfect her formulas and recipes to ensure the products were organoleptically balanced, appealing to all the senses. But even the successful launch of her bakery was a bittersweet affair for her. Her husband never lived to see it come to fruition. Less than a year ago, her husband of over 20 years died suddenly. He was her muse, her business partner and her biggest supporter.
“We were one,” she said pensively. He assisted her in every way, and she reminisced on how instrumental his support was during the years she was doing research for her doctorate.
“How many papers he vetted and helped me to research and write; how much he taught me, and sacrificed financially and otherwise to provide for me and for our children. He was my everything.” She said he was the one who spurred her on at the end of her research to take the next step and work on producing the formula which potentially, could positively affect the lives of so many people.
“I was moved to tears when it became evident that students at my Canadian alma mater had been using my research and even regurgitating parts of the defence of my thesis and giving me no credit.”
But her pragmatic husband nudged her back on track. Since his death, she has had to draw from the strength he always required of her, buoyed by the Catholic faith which they shared and cherished. Her fierce determination to succeed is now fuelled by his absence and the fact that she is now fully responsible for the welfare of her three children. She is determined to protect and mentor them as their father did, and to minimise any disruption to their lives.
She said this new chapter involves different players. Her staff of three at the bakery have become even more critical, and the pandemic brought supply chain challenges which have not been fully resolved. Adjusting to life without him continues to be challenging because of the numerous roles he played. Getting her ingredients precisely measured, sourcing raw materials and researching all ingredients for her formula have all felt like insurmountable challenges.
“But I’m focused on expanding gradually and getting my business model just right so that I can become more proficient at estimating the numbers of clients to be serviced; achieving some level of consistency.”
Gradual expansion, she said, is something that she has deliberately opted for because she doesn’t “want to get too big for her breeches and become overwhelmed.”
She and her baker are once again in experimental mode, working out the right proportions with her trademark fibre powder, seeking to expand her product offering. On a regular basis, some of the products available at Healthy Options Bakery are white sandwich loaves, baguette for garlic bread, brioche, orange cake loaf and banana bread loaf. They are working on refining the recipe for sada roti. But the bakery also carries non-fibre powder items such as cupcakes and other regular bread.
“2023 has been such a challenging year for me, mentally and emotionally, but I don’t want to stop what I’ve been doing because there are people who are benefitting. And even though it’s not a lot, every life counts. This was Sonny’s dream for me. He had also asked me to develop a powder to assist people with dyslipidemia – blood lipid levels that are too high or low,” which she is working on.
She is mindful that very often negative situations has the potential to become the platforms which transition into positive outcomes. She reflects on how she has often remarked that “covid was one of the best things that ever happened to my family.”
She had often complained that Williams was always too focused on work, but during the pandemic she was pleasantly surprised that he planned a family outing every weekend. She treasures every moment she had with him, and as always, expects to grow and learn lessons from that particular adversity.
She said apart from the family time the pandemic afforded, it was during this period that they saw growth in the volume of business, and had positive feedback from her diabetic customers. As a team, she and her husband were looking forward to growing this brand.
“I lost Sonny on Old Year’s Day 2022,” she said as tears streamed down her face.
“I stepped into 2023 at the lowest I have ever been in my life.”
But she holds on to the commitment she made to be “better than any company and university, to make it legal and potent, and to treat people who have diabetes and who want to manage their weight.”
And although she continues to encounter resistance from regulatory bodies, she remains undaunted because she is intimately familiar with almost all laws and regulations that govern the food industry in TT. She intends to persist with her undertaking, mindful that her products do what she says they can, and she is somewhat disappointed that even though the UWI offers tertiary level training in food science, there is no real focus on food health.
“We are not training people to understand fibre, we are not training people to understand physiology, from the viewpoint of a nutraceutical.
“I am hoping that at some point I will have the opportunity to have people know and understand what I know and understand, better than I know and understand it,” as it regards integrating the scientific and the culinary.