The Future of Food – do we need to re-engineer food?

Dr Julian McClements has an impressive resumé. He is a distinguished professor at Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts; adjunct professor, School of Food Science and Bioengineering at Zhejaing Gongshang University, China; and a visiting professor at Harvard University. He has more than 1,000 articles published, with 80,000 citations in other peoples’ papers, as well as 12 patents. He also published the book Future Foods: How Modern Science is Transforming the Way We Eat. When he talks, people listen.

During a recent Future of Food seminar, McClements made it clear that being in the food science arena now is the most exciting time he has seen in the industry in his 30-plus years of being involved.

What are the issues?
However, he realises there are a lot of problems within the food supply chain in terms of who is getting what and it is part of a food science practitioner’s brief to help solve these issues.

“First, there are over two billion people around the world have malnutrition or under-nutrition,” he said. “There is more than two billion people suffering from chronic conditions due to over nutrition with diseases like diabetes and heart disease. That is a huge problem where we need to reengineer the food system to try and solve.”

There are food safety issues. Humans have a globalised food supply, which spans across the world and we’re getting ingredients from all over and bringing them together, he said. We have to make sure the foods are safe and we have new technologies to test those foods.

“Then there are also food sustainability issues,” he said. “The global population is growing and people are becoming richer, and that is putting more of a strain on the food supply because we have to feed everybody. We’re trying to make our foods more healthier and sustainable, but as we do that we have to make sure they taste good because nobody is going to eat them if they don’t taste good or are not affordable and if they are not convenient. We need to combine all of these things together.”

McClements believes that literally food designers and technologists will be delving into the realms of what was once science fiction to become science fact. In the past 10 years, ways of creating and making food he saw on the television screen as a child are coming to fruition. He cites Star Trek as an example.

“When I was growing up you had Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise and part of the inner machinations of the starship was a food replicator machine,” he said. “You could type in the food you wanted, and it would print it out for you. At the time it seemed really far-fetched, but who thought back then you would have phones where you could see somebody on the phone interface. You thought that was never going to happen and now we all have mobile phones. It is the same with the food replicators.”

What got McClements really thinking about food design was when he was invited to a meeting in Boston 10 years ago with mathematician Eric Bonabeau. Bonabeau was a complexity theorist, and he got a grant from NASA to make a 3D printer like the replicator, to create food for astronauts.

“He brought together, Leroy Chow, who was a commander on the international space station, as well as a gastronomy chef, an author who had written a book on food and cooking, and I was there to provide information about emulsions and things like that,” said McClements. “It was a really exciting meeting. They brought together all of these engineers and scientists and chefs, but I remember leaving the meeting and thinking, ‘That’s a crazy idea. This is never going to work. This is never going to be practical’. Then 10 years later, people are 3D printing everything.”

There is even a restaurant in London, Food Ink, that has 3D printed chairs, tables, cutlery and food. Customers can type in what they want and the food is 3D printed.

“If you were training to be a chef and spent years and years training to make these really sophisticated structures to put on cakes at a high-end restaurant, you might be better to be training as a software engineer. If you can program a 3D printer to make those structures you don’t need the skills of chef anymore,” said McClements.

One of the bigger questions McClements asked aloud was, “How can we use food design principles to solve real-world problems?”

Another big issue, according to him, is the sustainably of the food supply.

The global population is growing, people are becoming wealthier, a larger fraction of people are moving into urban environments, and people are trying to move into a more westernised diet and that often involves eating more meat. He said it is estimated that we might have to produce up to 70 percent more food by 2050.

“This is going to be huge problem and something that food scientists need to address.

“There are lots of different solutions. Some of them involve being able to redesign foods,” said McClements.

One issue is trying to balance the use of agricultural land. According to the June 2018 issue of Science Magazine, in an article written by academics Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, they said that farming animals takes up 83 per cent of the world’s agricultural land but only provides 18 per cent of our calory intake. This doesn’t mean those of us who like a steak or a bucket of fried chicken have to give it up, but in order to feed the world, food scientists need to start thinking differently, according to McClements. This means more plant-based foods and even other forms of proteins like insects, and what is called culture-based foods – that is meat grown in a petrie dish.

Plant-based foods
In the case of plant-based foods it is not just a case of people turning to vegetarianism because it is healthier (and sometimes not, which we will come to later), but because they like the taste of vegetables in terms of being a protein replacement. And this is where food science really needs to stand up and be counted, said McClements.

“That is easier said than done. Most of us have grown up eating meat-based foods,” said McClements. “It is often seen as a status symbol to eat meat and animal products. So how can we try to improve the world? We can use the deconstruction of the hamburger as an example.”

According to McClements, one of the first things consumers and manufacturers need to understand is what makes a burger taste like it does, and then try and mimic that so consumers that usually like meat burgers will at least try the plant-based variety. And therein, lies the issue – making plant-based ‘meat’ taste like the real thing is not easy. Yet, some companies have come very close to replicating the smell, texture and taste. McClements tasted an Impossible Burger for the first time in 2018.

“It was very similar to a beef burger,” he said. “It has the same colour when you bite into it and it has a similar texture to a beef burger. It was a little bit mushy when you chewed it for a long time. Part of the reason this burger tasted so good was is that the Impossible Food Company had identified heme, which is usually present in meat, has a really important role in determining the flavour and colour of beef burgers.

“They found that in the roots of soya beans you have this heme protein, which binds irons and gives the desirable colour and flavour that you need. The only problem was that there wasn’t enough heme in the roots of these soya beans to isolate efficiently. What they did was use fermentation tanks and genetically engineer it so that they could get enough heme to put in the quantities they were making.

One of the big drivers for this is that if you eat plants directly, they have a much more efficient protein yield than eating beef. They have less of an effect on the environment.

“In my lifetime in the food science area this has been one of the most dramatic changes I’ve seen. I just found out that Impossible Foods is expanding and investing money into research. They have just got 50 new hires where they are looking for people to work in their company in San Francisco to do the next generation of their plant-based burgers. There is a huge amount of money being invested in this area.”

McClements often gets asked to consult in the food area. He said that a lot of people he talks to about plant-based ingredients want to know how to make them better and more sustainable.

“There was a lifecycle analysis done at the University of Michigan,” he said. “What they did was compare a Beyond Meat burger with a traditional beef burger and they did a full life-cycle analysis. They found that you needed much less water, much less land, which meant there was less greenhouse gases and much less energy for the plant-based burger.

“What is surprising to me is that most Americans eat three burgers a week. If the average American switched one of their hamburgers for a plant-based burger that would be equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road, or powering 2.3 million homes. By doing that it is amazing how much impact we can have on the environment.”

Nutritional profile
Another interesting insight that McClements brought to the fore was the nutritional profile of plant-based foods, which is that they must be healthier for consumers than their meat counterparts. Not necessarily so, he said.

“The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burger are very highly processed foods. They contain a lot of ingredients. Also their nutritional profile is not a lot better a traditional beef burger, and in some respect are worse,” he said. “When they were selling one of these plant-based burgers in one of the fast food chains in America, the [on of their plant-based burgers] had more calories, more saturated fat, more sodium and less protein than a traditional beef burger. If you look at the label is looks less healthy. It really is a work in progress.”

As mentioned earlier, one of the most exciting things about this area is the complexity of science involved in order to make these plant-based burgers, according to McClements. In some respects it is more difficult to make them more tasty because we are trying to make them out of plant proteins.

“One of the lead scientists from Impossible Burgers came and spoke to us at the university and she was an engineer and she talked about how they make the product, “ said McClements. “Some of the things that they had to engineer into it were amazing. There were things like, the way the light was absorbed and scattered. You went from a pink colour to a brown colour so you needed some chemistry and some physics to understand that. You needed the right aroma profile so the right concentration of volatile molecules – you would have to know what was above a beef product but also how to mimic that in the plant-based product. Then you had to get the right texture and mouth feel.”

Cultured meats
Another future innovation that is closer to being a reality are culture burgers, which are burgers where the meat is grown in a petri dish or fermentation tank. This was first trialled by NASA in the 1990s, where they were trying to grow fish in a culture dish so they could feed astronauts in space. In Europe in the past decade, food technologists have been able to grow a cell from a cow in a fermentation tank, and given the right nutrients, and temperatures and growth factors, it will grow into meat cells.

“You have to exercise these meat cells so they get the right structure. One you get them, you can grind them up and make a burger from it,” said McClements. “The first taste test with these burgers was done in 2013 and they had some chefs taste them and they said they were too dry. That was surprising because it cost nearly $330,000 of investment it. That was a very expensive burger for something that tasted dry.”

But will people eat them? McClements believes commercial applications are close and he cites a company near San Francisco called Just Foods that are using the technology in order to create different kind of chicken products.

“On their website they have a really nice video where they have some of the staff members from the company who are having a picnic,” he said. “And they are eating these chicken nuggets. And these nuggets came from a chicken called Ian. And Ian is running around the table as they are eating the nuggets, which is really weird that you can eat something that is still alive. I think they took the some cells from the feathers to get the chicken nuggets. They say that they are going to have some products on the market fairly soon.”

Another alternative, instead of having cultured meat, is to have bug burgers. Insects are becoming more popular, according to McClements. There is a restaurant in the UK called grub kitchen where they serve a menu based on insects. One of the key things that has driven this area is that insects are seen by many as more sustainable. They are becoming popular in Europe, you can buy bug burgers in supermarkets.

Why would consumer eat bugs? One reason is that they have a good nutritional profile and they have a higher protein content than meat and fish. They have a lower fat content, and the fat they do have is rich in omega 3 fatty acids.

“And we all know that omega 3 fatty acids are good for your health,” said McClements. “They also have a good fibre content. By switching from beef to different types of edible insects we can improve the nutritional profile.

However, one of the biggest issues around the consumption of bugs, according to McClements, is having to overcome is the “yuk factor”. People in the Western world don’t think about eating bugs and don’t want to eat bugs. The biggest challenge in this area is how to get more people comfortable with eating insects.

“If you look the world there are already two billion people eating insects,” said McClements. “It is common part of their diet. Look at some of the things we do eat in the West – things like lobsters which are like a giant ocean cockroach, or shrimps which are like a sea locust, or eels which are like a big river worm.

“Between 100 or 200 years ago in New England, lobsters was seen as a food that was really for impoverished people or prisoners. They were abundant on the coast of New England and nobody wanted to eat them apart from the poorer people and now it is a delicacy in New England. They are very expensive to buy. Maybe this will be the same for cockroaches and crickets or locusts in the future.”

One of the ways of getting around the yuk factor is, according to McClements, is instead of eating the whole insect as people do around the world, maybe they can be processed into products like flour, and people can use these flours to make different types of food such as protein bars, cakes or bread.

“To do this you really need to know food science to understand what is in these flours and how they behave in different types of food products so we get the right appearance, texture and taste so people want to eat the product,” he said. “Working with a group in Canada we have isolated proteins from bugs and made nano particles out of them to encapsulate diffident types of bioagents so we can stabilise them and incorporate them into foods.

“There a companies now that are farming insects. A company based in the Netherlands has a huge facility where they are farming insects. There are seven billion insects in one of these factories. That is the same number of people on the Earth in one factory. They are taking them and turning them into animal food, but also into human food.

“One of the advantages is that you can take waste materials that would normally get thrown away and feed them to the bugs who will convert them into a high source of proteins, minerals and vitamins.”
Overall, McClements is expecting bigger and better things from a food technology perspective over the next decade.

“There are so many exciting things going on in different types of technology – from gene editing, food architecture, and nanotechnology and personalised nutrition,” he said. “There is lots of science to do in incredibly complicated systems we are working with.”

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