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On the road to a healthier snack time

The road to eating healthier foods may be paved with good intentions, but the distractions along the way make it hard to stay on the right route.
Wise Bites
Cathline James admits to being a ‘serial entrepreneur’ — her foray into gluten-free baked goods by founding Richmond-based Wise Bites being the latest in a long string of businesses she has run during her career. Photo by Philip Raphael/Richmond News

The road to eating healthier foods may be paved with good intentions, but the distractions along the way make it hard to stay on the right route.

That’s one of the main reasons Cathline James decided to embark on creating a line of snack foods designed to address allergies and general health, without giving up on flavour.

“When you bring kids through a hockey rink or swimming pool complex, most of the time on the way out you offer them the worst food on the market from the vending machines,” James said.

She opened the doors to the east Richmond production facilities of Wise Bites in November 2012 and since then has waged pretty much a seven-day-a-week schedule to get her dairy, gluten, peanut, tree nut, egg and soy-free, low-sugar baked goods to market.

“If we could just make it a little easier for people to have something healthier to eat right in front of them, they wouldn’t feel like they were missing out,” James said. “We have to re-examine what we consider to be a treat. Even I’m guilty of that when my children were younger.”

She said Friday nights were considered open season on high sugar snacks.

“Even though we were careful with that, the reality was that I was teaching them wrong. That was not a treat. That’s the bad stuff.”

James said society needs to think of how we can reward ourselves with things that make us feel better and make our bodies work better.

She concedes that her products are not completely sinless — they do have sugar in them. But the quantities are kept to a bare minimum.

“We felt it was better to use a small amount of sugar — the devil we know rather than chemicals — and sweeten mainly with date paste which also gives you lots of minerals,” she said.

The step into manufacturing was a new one for James who has run several other businesses since her early 20s, when she started buying revenue properties in Calgary after saving up capital in her teens selling cattle from the family farm.

“Back in 1974 you could actually do something with that money you saved. You could put that money down on a duplex, sell it, then buy a townhouse, and then sell that for an apartment building,” James said. “Back then, $3,000 was a downpayment on a duplex.”

She bought and sold numerous properties and ended up with a 16-suite apartment building by time she was 24.

James also worked as a flight attendant with Wardair because it gave her the time off to run her property business.

And when she moved to the West Coast she ran a women’s high fashion store in Victoria for a decade.

James also went to work for the UN as a consultant in Switzerland, producing training modules for female entrepreneurs.

“You know, it’s tough to get an entrepreneur to say this is the last one (business),” James said. “I love what I do.”

She also recognized that in addition to her desire to encourage healthier eating trends, gluten-free products were becoming a big business.

According to Euromonitor International, the food intolerance market in North America was worth US$3.6 billion in 2010, fuelled by gluten and lactose-free products. The Canadian market accounted for just $167.6 million at that time.

And Statista, which describes itself as one of the world’s largest statistics portals, stated that sales of gluten-free products in Canada are expected to rise in the coming years, blowing past 2015’s $700 million mark to reach $758 million next year, and $811 million by 2017.

Helping drive that is a rise in food allergies. Health Canada has determined food allergies affect as many has six per cent of young children and three to four per cent of adults.

One of the conditions is Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the intestinal lining which can be damaged by gluten — a protein found in rye, wheat and barley that gives bread elasticity.

The Canadian Celiac Association estimates that one in 133 Canadians is affected by this condition.

The strive to offer alternative foods has even spread to the church as even God is going gluten-free.

If you are an Anglican, communion wafers are available in gluten-free form, said Randy Murray, communications officer with the Diocese of New Westminster.

“In keeping with the Anglican ethos, we offer an alternative,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure how many Anglican churches across B.C. stock the rice-based wafers. “Generally, the church has a tolerance for local expression.”

The effort to establish Wise Bites has been a professional challenge and also a personal one for James — when she was 15, her mother died of cancer.

“That’s why I became very passionate about the effects of sugar and meat on our bodies. I am very passionate about the small steps we can make to improve our health,” she said. “People don’t want to take responsibility, sometimes. It’s more fun to eat potato chips.”

At the moment, 21 products — cookie bars, muffins and loaves — are produced from Wise Bites’ 1,200-square-foot production facility using Quinoa flour — from Saskatchewan, as well as Bolivia — instead of wheat, and chia seeds in place of eggs.

“I wanted to be free of those top 11 allergens so I could open that door up to everybody to have healthy food,” James said. “Now, we can easily produce 4,500 muffins, or 11,000 bars a day.”

At the moment, Wise Bites products are available at a variety of grocery stores including Whole Foods, Choices, Thrifty Foods, Save-On-Foods and Nesters.

“We’ve made it as far as Winnipeg and working hard to get into Toronto,” James said, adding that to maintain Wise Bites’ profile she hustles off to six or eight demonstrations each weekend, dishing out samples in grocery stores that stock her goods.

“We really try and help them (stores) build a client base. It’s a team effort, getting the word out there.”

And that usually caps her seven-day work week. “What I discovered long ago that the secret to last in business is to work hard, and dedicate yourself to fixing whatever didn’t work today, tomorrow,” James said.

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