What is Food Technology and What Is Its Role in Nutrition?
The Institute of Food Technologists defines food technology as “the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe food .” But put simply, it is a branch of technology that deals with food production.
Food technology is not a single discipline, however. It draws on other fields, especially nutrition. Additional fields related to it include dietetics, chemistry, microbiology, engineering, toxicology, and economics, to name a few.
Its origins can be traced back to 1810 with the invention of canning by Nicolas Appert . Decades later, Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization, which was one of the first applications of scientific knowledge to food preservation. In the 20th century, food technology has mainly focused on the consumer, resulting in food that was safe, convenient, and varied. Think pasteurized milk, frozen meals, and imported fruits. But in the 21st century, the focus has shifted to healthy and sustainable foods.
We are now looking for innovations in food technology that will help feed the projected 8.5 billion people by 2030. Technologists are also seeking ways to curb the ecological burden of food production (food production accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions ).
5 Food Tech Innovations in Nutrition
There are no doubt technology innovations are helping us live healthier lives. The internet offers a wealth of health information, smart devices help us track our fitness, and biotechnology has made nutritious foods more accessible. There are also recent tech innovations in the food industry that are shaping the nutrition of the future for healthier and more sustainable living:
1. Alternative Proteins
Among the top innovations in food, technology is alternative proteins. Also called meat alternatives, alternative proteins are non-animal-based. Sources of alternative proteins include grasses, grains, legumes, nuts, fungus, algae, and even insects. Conventional proteins, on the other hand, are animal-based and sourced from fish, chicken, beef, and dairy.
Protein is essential for survival. We need about 50g of protein a day to keep our bodies healthy and functioning. Most of us meet our protein needs through animal sources. But evidence shows this is bad for the environment [4, 5].
Replacing beef with beans, on the other hand, could free up 42% of US cropland and reduce greenhouse gas emissions so much that 75% of the 2020 carbon reduction target is reached. Because many consumers know this, there has been a recent 40% increase in the sales of meat-free foods in some countries . And many companies are taking heed.
The Leaf Protein Co offers one of the most environmentally friendly and abundant proteins: RuBisCo found in leaves. Algama distributes microalgae-based food, while NuCicer produces a special variety of chickpeas with 75% more protein. SENS Foods is particularly interesting because it has found a way to market crickets as a protein source.
2. Cultured Meat
One of the latest innovations in food technology is cultured meat. Also called in vitro meat or lab-grown meat, cultured meat is meat produced by in vitro cell cultures instead of farming. This became possible thanks to the advent of cellular agriculture and advancements in tissue engineering.
To make cultured meat, producers harvest a small sample of stem cells from a living animal. They then place these cells in a growth medium containing nutrients that help cells grow and multiply.
Proponents claim cultured meat has the potential to address many ethical, environmental, and health issues . However, there is also a lot of skepticism around it.
A review article published in 2020 raises concerns regarding the nutritional composition of these meats, i.e. if they’ll be sufficient in vitamins and minerals . It also explains that it is nearly impossible to replicate the diversity of meat types and cuts that consumers want using these methods.
Nonetheless, the first burger made this way was prepared by chef Richard McGeown in 2013. Since that time, start-ups like the seafood-focused Shiok Meats and chicken-based Super Meat have worked hard on bringing cultivated meat to consumers everywhere.
In days past, people saw food mainly as a source of sustenance. But things are quite different today. Consumers now want their diet to help them live healthier and longer lives. That’s why the global nutraceuticals market size was valued at a whopping 454 billion in 2021 .
In case you need a primer: nutraceuticals are foods and supplements with benefits beyond their nutritional value. The term “nutraceutical” was coined in 1989 by Stephen De Felice, founder, and chairman of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine to mean “food, or parts of a food, that provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease .”
Also referred to as functional foods, designer foods, and superfoods, these foods have gone a long way since the 80s. Innovations in food technology have led to things like hydrolyzed proteins, fortified cereals, psyllium husk fiber, probiotic yogurt, garlic and ginger supplements, etc. These foods are often marketed to cater to different health and dietary needs, e.g. gluten-free, vegan, or keto.
While countless everyday foods can be considered functional, there are also companies using new technology for food production to get the most out of functional foods.
Bioscience-focused CrhomaDex, for example, has isolated functional nutrients and compounds (e.g. vitamin B3 and spirulina extract) from superfoods to be sold in supplement form. ZBiotics has produced the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic to prevent hangovers. And KetoSwiss offers human-identical ketones to curb common health issues, like migraines.
4. Personalized Nutrition For Healthy Living (PROTEIN)
A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works, and that’s especially true when it comes to health and nutrition advice. Decades of public health campaigns have failed to slow down the epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases .
That’s why the European Union’s Horizon research and innovation program has decided to fund the PROTEIN project in 2020, which aims to use technology to share personalized nutrition advice on a large scale.
An acronym for Personalized Nutrition For Healthy Living, the PROTEIN project involves 20 partners from 11 European countries, including many involved in industry, research, and technology. The aim is to develop a new mobile application suite that will help people lead healthier lives by offering personalized health, nutrition, and fitness advice.
The mobile suite will consist of a platform, a mobile suite, a game suite, data collection, data analysis, cloud services, an AI advisor, and a dashboard for healthcare professionals. However, many companies are already offering these types of services to consumers.
Take Pinto, for example. This product database and analytics platform help you shop for healthy food, groceries, and consumer goods. GUTXY uses DNA sequencing technology to identify key microbes in your gut to help create tailored health advice, while subscription-based ROOTINE uses data science and DNA testing to offer personalized health solutions.
Food preservation has helped ancient humans stay put, form communities, and create civilization. And since we’ve been doing this since ancient times, we’ve become very proficient in this. Just a couple of examples of food preservation are pickling, salting, smoking, canning, bottling, pasteurizing, refrigerating, dehydration, and the list goes on.
But thanks to new technology for food preservation, we can now add a new method to the list: freeze drying!
The great thing about freeze-drying is that it preserves food better than any other method . It helps preserve the original color, shape, and taste of the product. It also leads to little to no nutrient loss as even beneficial bacteria can remain in the final food item.
A review article published in 2019 even concluded that two popular freeze-drying methods (vacuum and atmospheric) had very little impact on the food quality of the end product .
Paradise Fruits by the German company, Jahncke is one of the world’s leading specialists in freeze drying. U.S.-based Harmony House Foods is focused on providing shelf-stable foods, including those that are freeze-dried. Empire Freezing & Drying is another U.S. freeze-drying company but that is the only one to offer liquid products in its freeze-dried form.
We live in a changing world, and that means that companies and the general population need to adapt. One way we can do so is with the help of technological innovation.
Innovations in food technology are already changing the landscape of food production, processing, and distribution.
From sustainable proteins to personalized and improved nutrition and novel food preservation methods, there’s hope that the future of food production will be a bright one thanks to innovations in food technology.
- Institute of Food Technologists. About Food Science and Technology. 2019 January 1.
- National Council of Educational Research and Training. Food Processing And Technology. 2022.
- United Nations. Food systems account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. 2021 March 9.
- Niki AR, Lucy R, Caroline W, et. al. How to transition to reduced-meat diets that benefit people and the planet. 2020 20 May.
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- Tso R, Lim AJ, Forde CG. A Critical Appraisal of the Evidence Supporting Consumer Motivations for Alternative Proteins. 2020 December 23.
- Christopher Bryant. Culture, meat, and cultured meat. August 2020
- Chriki S, Hocquette JF. The Myth of Cultured Meat: A Review. 2020 February 7.
- Grand View Research. Nutraceuticals Market Size & Share Report, 2021-2030.
- Torabally NB, Abdolrahman Rahmanpoor H. Nutraceuticals: Nutritionally Functional Foods – an Overview. 2019 March 7.
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- Bhatta S, Stevanovic Janezic T, Ratti C. Freeze-Drying of Plant-Based Foods. Published 2020 January 13.
- Harguindeguy M, Fissore D. On the effects of freeze-drying processes on the nutritional properties of foodstuff: A review. 2019 April 15.