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What it's like to be judge for the Canadian Grand Prix New Product Awards program

As I write this, I’ve just returned from Montreal where I was one of many judges for the Canadian Grand Prix New Product Awards.

I’m still full.

If you’ve never had the experience, it’s a little surreal.

Let me explain a bit first. The Canadian Grand Prix New Product Awards is a program that is open to manufacturers, suppliers and distributors of food, non-food and private label products. The products must be introduced to the market between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. And you have until late December to enter the product for the following year. The Retail Council of Canada runs the program.


In February, the non-food (and sometimes some non-perishable food) products arrived at my house in brown cardboard boxes. In March, as I mentioned, I was in Montreal for two days to try the food products.

I can’t discuss or name any of the brands I tried. The winners, however, will be announced this summer.

But I can speak about the experience. As judges, we have a fairly big task. The objective, as outlined in the Evaluation Guide, is to encourage manufacturers to develop and market innovative distribution products and to provide Canadian consumers with exceptional value and quality. The awards celebrate those products that meet all the criteria.

The non-food products are the easy part.

You’re asked to look at the presentation and packaging: is there too much packaging or just enough? Is all the information you need on it? Can you open it easily? Is it environmentally friendly or environmentally innocuous?

We’re asked to look at the products’ characteristics such as its appearance and how effective it is. That’s the best part. I get to put the product to the test. Does it do what the package says it will? Did the package over-promise or exaggerate?

There was a product once a few years ago that was an interesting contraption where with a foot pedal you could clean your toilet without having to bend over or use your hands. Well, let’s just say I had really clean walls.  Great idea, though. Everyone in the house wanted to try it (and no one ever goes near the toilets when it’s time to clean them). I remember being so impressed with that. “Tweak it!” I said. “And I’ll be a customer for life.”

We’re also asked to look at innovation and originality. Is the product new and innovative? Does it change how we look at the rest of the category?

This is the tough one sometimes. The toilet cleaner is a good example. There are many others too, but sometimes the innovation involves an extra step to assemble or an accessory that you have to replace. Those are the kinds of details that might not work for everyone.

Another tough one is looking at the overall consumer value. In other words, does it offer good value for the price? Sometimes it’s obvious. If the product doesn’t work, it doesn’t score really well here. If it’s a food that’s meant for children but is high in fat and sugar and not much else, what am I really getting for my money? It’s more like a confection. But if the manufacturer hid some real carrots or zucchini or real fruit, that’s much more persuasive. Sometimes it is a confection and it could be delicious and decadent and a treat. And I’d spend my money for those very reasons.

Judging the food products for two days (or more) straight is a whole other experience. You use all the same criteria as you did with the non-food products. But you have to pace yourself. You have to wear relaxed-fit pants or jeans. You have to get up and stretch your legs every so often. You have to remember that if it’s a food that has multiple ways of preparation (oven, stovetop or microwave, etc.), you will try that food that many times.

It’s surreal and fascinating. There may be discussions among the judges about the products’ nutrition facts table. Every year that I’ve done it, a nutritionist/dietician has been present and she can deftly calculate the nutritional merits of each product. It’s these things you need to know if you’re on a special diet, for instance. Sometimes it sheds more light on what the product has to offer or doesn’t offer.

The experience is always an eye-opener. And after my fourth year, I’d hate to miss it. Having worked in this industry for 10 years, it’s one other way I can get up close to the products we cover in our magazine. You get to see the trends unfold with each food item. You appreciate what food scientists must do every day – choosing ingredients, formulating and reformulating. You see the spectacular successes and some that just need a little tweaking.  And that’s really what it’s about – making products that consumers want to buy.

But now that it’s over for this year, and before I can get back into my (skinny?) regular jeans, I need to get out for a walk.

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