By Chef Martin Lopez
When you think of food engineering, you may think specifically about genetically engineered food. However, food engineering is far more than just genetic modifications. It includes everything from procuring raw food materials, to processing food materials into food products, to preserving, packaging, and delivering food products to consumers. Food engineering is one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry, and is likely to continue to dominate conversations about the future of food.
Despite its growing presence in the industry, food engineering remains a controversial topic. Supporters argue that genetic engineering of foods is beneficial because it increases resistance to pests (and thereby reduces the need for pesticides that harm the environment), increases food supply especially in poorer nations, increases the shelf life of many foods, and increases nutritional content through enhanced vitamins and minerals.
The main argument against food engineering is that there is potential for unknown long-term health implications associated with many of the practices involved in food engineering. Opponents of food engineering practices also argue that there is no evidence that such practices increase nutritional value, and may in fact decrease the nutritional value of foods in some cases. For example, practices such as food irradiation, which eliminates pathogens and reduces the growth rate of microorganisms during storage, may not only negatively affect the nutritional content of irradiated food but also result in the development of chemical compounds with unknown toxicity.
While research to date has found no scientific evidence of harm associated with engineered food, there is no set standard for ensuring consumer awareness. Consumer data indicates that consumers want to know where their food is coming from and how it is being produced. Regardless, the FDA does not currently have any universal requirements for labeling genetically modified foods, meaning that many consumers are consuming foods that have been altered or otherwise engineered – and are none the wiser.
Advancements in Engineering
Despite these concerns, there can be no doubt that food engineering will continue to expand in the future. Food products like the “Impossible Burger”, are popping up everywhere. Despite some critics arguing that it contains a protein that is genetically engineered and has even tested positive for glyphosate, it is gaining popularity. There is an apple (dubbed the “non-browning apple”) that has been genetically modified to stop the chemical reaction that causes browning. Golden rice is a strain of rice that has been genetically enhanced to have high levels of beta carotene, which has the potential to address Vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries. Today, much of the corn, cotton seed, soybean, hemp, CBD, and canola oil, used in cooking and food products is genetically modified, and most of the meat we consume comes from livestock that is fed genetically modified corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
Engineering the Future
A Dutch research organization called TNO has started experimenting with 3D food printing using both traditional and alternative ingredients. A new process called High Pressure Processing is a cold pasteurization technique that can extend food products’ shelf life by 10 times. Other companies are developing automated food production systems that increase efficiency and accuracy in grading and sorting chickens, for example.
Other advancements in food engineering include everything from using insect protein to replace traditional sources, to lab-grown meat and personalized nutrition.
Insects Supply Protein
The St. Louis-based start-up Mighty Cricket offers everyday breakfast foods such as pancake mix, oatmeal, and protein powder, all of which incorporate roasted, powdered crickets as an ingredient. Recent data suggests that insect protein could become an $8 billion business by 2030. Further, the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization believes that insect proteins could be the future answer to global food insecurity.
Lab-grown meat is a new form of sustainable engineering that grows meat from stem cells harvested by biopsy from livestock. The harvested stem cells are then cultured in a lab for a few weeks. In spite of the high cost associated of growing meat in a lab setting, many environmentalists believe advancements in this area could reduce the environmental impact of large-scale livestock farming. Some estimates suggest up to a 96% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if “in-vitro meat” was adopted on a large scale.
Personalize Your Nutrition
Another innovative concept attracting attention in the realm of food engineering is known as “personalized nutrition” – the idea that your diet can be tailored to complement your genetic makeup. Research has started focusing on the link between genetic composition and reactions to food, such as the ability to absorb essential nutrients more efficiently. While it is too soon to know where this could go in the future, it seems certain that food supplies will move toward personally tailored eating plans as the science advances.
With all of these advancements in technology and science, the future of food is undoubtedly up for grabs. As has already occurred in many other industries, the experiments and innovations of today will become commonplace in the future, and many of the food production processes and the food sources we know today will become obsolete.
(Chef Martin Lopez is a contributing writer from St. Louis)