I.F.T.14: Bugs, lab burgers, biotechnology… oh, my

by Monica Watrous    View Me on Google+
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NEW ORLEANS – Urban greenhouses, lab-grown burgers, and cricket flour may figure into the future of food. The ingredient landscape is changing, challenged by volatility in crop supply, an increasing global population and economic turbulence, said Nirvana Chapman, senior consultant at Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.

“So, you’re picturing yourself in the year 2030, you’re living in slum, eating a $15 avocado, and you’re probably wondering ‘how did I get here, and how could I have avoided this?’” Ms. Chapman said June 23 during a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition held in New Orleans. “The real question is, how are we going to feed all these people, and many solutions have been proposed.”

Biotechnology, for one, has become a hotly debated solution to strengthening the food supply. While some bioengineered crops, such as Hawaiian papayas, have been found to be more resilient to environmental conditions, the use of bioengineered ingredients in food products is a controversial topic among consumers.

“A lot of foreign countries have no tolerance for G.M.O.s and don’t want it in their markets,” Ms. Chapman said. “Consumers in the U.S. have been calling them ‘frankenfoods,’ and that curiosity and wonder has come to the U.S.”

Fake meat products are being positioned as sustainable protein alternatives.

 

Meat alternatives may offer another solution to protecting the food supply, she said. Some companies are competitively pitting “fake” meat products against the real thing. Beyond Meat, Manhattan Beach, Calif., offers soy-based strips and crumbles used in place of chicken or beef with the mission to conserve natural resources and animal welfare. Food scientists also have explored laboratory-grown beef as a viable, albeit expensive, alternative to meat.

“Last October, a $330,000 hamburger was cooked on live television,” Ms. Chapman said. “The entire hamburger was composed of stem cells grown in a lab and made into hamburger meat … It’s very exciting for the implication of how to get protein and animal-sourced meat products without the animal.”

Another option may bug some U.S. consumers – crickets and other insects are being used as a protein source in such products as energy bars.

“Exo is an example of a company that is trying to make the practice of eating bugs more Westernized,” Ms. Chapman said.

Brooklyn-based Exo makes protein bars formulated with flour from dried crickets.

Brooklyn-based Exo makes energy bars with flour derived from dried crickets.

 

Companies may also repurpose byproduct from manufacturing processes to produce such ingredients as grain or flour.

“A really interesting example of repurposing is coffee flour,” Ms. Chapman said. “This is an ingredient that is made from the coffee cherry, which is discarded during the coffee harvesting process.”

In addition to protecting farmers from fluctuating prices by providing an additional source of profit, coffee flour helps reuse material that otherwise becomes waste. Beer companies may also explore the option of repurposing.

“A six-pack of beer can yield up to a lb of spent grain, which is usually discarded or used as animal feed,” Ms. Chapman said. “Some companies are getting innovative and reselling spent grain to bakeries, which are making anything from dog biscuits to pizza dough with the spent grain.”

As people increasingly move to cities around the world, urban growing also is being explored. A concept called Urbanana, a vertical banana plantation in a glass building in Paris, reduces transport of the fruit from exotic regions.

Urbanana, a vertical banana plantation in a glass building in Paris, reduces transport of the fruit from exotic regions.

 

“Basically, it’s a greenhouse right in the middle of the city center, where the growth of bananas is in the top six floors, and the bottom floor is an education center,” Ms. Chapman said.

A cost-saving solution developed to mitigate risks of food fraud is DNA barcoding, which may be used to identify species sold as ingredients or food products.

“No longer would you have to worry about ‘is this horse meat or beef?’” Ms. Chapman said. “Or, ‘is there pork DNA in my chocolate?’ It costs a lot of money to pull these products off the shelf. Something like DNA barcoding can be great for solving some of those issues.”

Food makers also should be mindful of climate change and other environmental issues affecting ingredients, as well as consumers’ social concerns, Ms. Chapman advised.

“Ask yourself the questions about your ingredients and your manufacturing processes,” she said. “How are they working for you now, and how will they be working for you in future?”
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