June/July 2022 Issue
Shaping the Future of Food
By Stephanie S. Hodges, MS, MPH, RDN
Vol. 24, No. 5, P. 36
Science and technological advances will continue to play a role in our nation’s food systems.
With a growing global population that’s expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, transformational change in our food system is needed now more than ever.1 Food producers and manufacturers are tasked with providing a food supply that’s affordable, safe, and nutritious while also maintaining the health of the planet and meeting consumer preferences. One way this can be accomplished is through scientific advances, which come with immense responsibility and opportunity that will lead to forward-thinking innovations that can change the global food system.
This article explores how the future of food has been and will continue to be shaped through science and technology and how various technological advances will influence consumption habits, food and nutrition security, food safety, food waste, and sustainability.
Consumer Demand Impacts Food Systems
The Future of Flavor
Year after year, consumer market research continues to show that taste is the top driver of food and beverage purchases.2 Food technologists are driving innovations within the food supply to meet and exceed consumer expectations when it comes to flavor. These innovations span different sectors of our food supply, which includes fruits and vegetables. One of the ways plant scientists are enhancing taste and flavor is through plant breeding.
The USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture defines plant breeding as “the science of maximizing plants’ positive genetic traits to produce desirable effects.” Plant breeding, which isn’t new, is practiced for a wide variety of reasons, including to reduce food insecurity, lower pesticide use, improve nutrition, support sustainability, and enhance flavor and taste.3
One of the most prolific examples of plant breeding to enhance flavor and taste is attributed to Michael Mazourek, PhD, a Cornell University researcher and plant breeder who developed a mini butternut squash, known as the honeynut squash, that’s small in size but big in flavor. Although the squash is his most famous development, Mazourek has cultivated several other successful varieties, including a mild habanero pepper and a cucumber, allowing the plant breeding industry to rethink how its purpose can focus on more than increased yield, including improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables.
Enhancing flavor may increase consumption, which is critical; approximately 9 in 10 Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, as noted in the 2020 State of the Plate. Also, the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consumers increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.4-6 By amplifying flavor in fruits and vegetables through technological advances and innovations such as plant breeding, it may be possible to bridge the gap between science-based recommendations and consumption. Ultimately, consumers increasing their consumption of more nutritious foods is a win-win for food technologists, health care professionals such as dietitians, and consumers.
“With consumer interest in health and nutrition at an all-time high, this is an important moment for the science of the food and nutrition community and health care professionals to communicate the importance of the Dietary Guidelines,” says Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Past President Noel Anderson, PhD. “We have an opportunity, especially through food science and technology innovations, to enable consumers to enjoy healthy foods in a new way.”
A Safe and Abundant Food Supply
Just as flavor is a driver of increased technological advances, so, too, is the issue of food safety within the food supply chain. Although confidence in the safety of the US food supply hasn’t changed since 2018, with 68% of consumers reporting they’re very or somewhat confident, foodborne illness and the presence of chemicals in food remain their top two food safety concerns.2 With technology contributing to increased traceability to identify safety concerns more quickly within our food supply and to monitor and detect potential contaminants, the safeness of our food supply and system continues to improve. Innovations and scientific tools, such as increased traceability through software, also have helped to identify and track foodborne illness outbreaks, allowing for a swifter response when an outbreak does occur and implementation of prevention efforts.
Food safety initiatives and efforts among the public and private sector, such as the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint and the IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center, aim to leverage technology and innovation to ensure an even safer food system. From reducing contaminants to preventing foodborne illness outbreaks and ensuring safer food manufacturing practices for those with food allergies, technology can pave the way for a more modern approach to food safety.
Technology and innovation in food production is used for a variety of other reasons, including to improve the healthfulness of products. Although food processing may have a negative connotation for consumers, certain types of food processing can be used to improve the nutritional profile of foods. One example of this is reducing the sodium content in prepared meats. As consumers reduce their sodium intake, food manufacturers have focused on how to reduce sodium content while preserving flavor. Some solutions include using salt substitutes or flavor enhancers, but processing technologies also can reduce sodium content.7 Other examples include the processing of whole grains, a nutritious and underconsumed food group, and the development of Golden Rice, a food that contains increased vitamin A to combat vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries.
In addition to improving the healthfulness of foods, food technologists and scientists also have focused on developing alternative food additives, such as food dyes, at the request of consumers. More natural sources for food dyes and coloring, such as vegetables and other plants, have proven to be a viable alternative, although these sources may have an impact on flavors or textures. Beets in place of red dyes, spirulina in place of blue dyes, or turmeric in place of yellows or oranges—all of these were developed in response to pressure regarding the removal of synthetic additives as consumers report avoiding “chemical-sounding ingredients” or choosing more “clean ingredient” options.2
Shelf Life and Reduction of Food Waste
In an effort to reduce food loss and food waste, stakeholders from the public and private sector have committed to creating technological solutions. In the United States, it’s estimated that approximately 30% to 40% of food in the food supply is wasted, which has negative impacts on food-insecure households, food producers, and the planet.8 One solution to tackle this growing problem is genetic engineering, or modification, which can help prevent spoilage of fresh foods or resist cosmetic issues that may make foods unappealing to consumers. Genetic engineering has been used to modify apples to keep them from browning by suppressing the enzyme that causes it, keeping apples appearing fresh.
In addition to innovations such as genetic engineering, finding unique ways to repurpose food also can reduce food waste. For example, instead of discarding the often-uneaten part of a food, such as the stem, rind, or peel, these can be incorporated into a variety of cooking methods or upcycled (a method used to transform byproducts or waste into new products for reuse), ultimately reducing food waste and promoting sustainability.
Lastly, packaging changes such as shifting to biodegradable or creating packaging that can improve the shelf life of its contents can be more sustainable while also reducing food waste. With the USDA and EPA’s joint effort to set a goal to cut the nation’s food waste by 50% by 2030, innovations focused on reducing food loss and waste will only increase.9
Healthy, Sustainable Food Systems for Human and Planetary Health
In addition to reducing food waste, which promotes sustainability, food technology innovations are another critical component to achieving healthy, sustainable food systems. Food producers, such as farmers, need food system innovations, including the ability to reuse water to reduce water usage or identify pest management solutions, not only to grow enough food but also to grow food better for people and the planet.
Food scientists and researchers continue to identify existing traits in foods that will make them sustainable and respond to the impacts of climate change while also developing new traits through genetic engineering. For example, researchers from the University of Cambridge identified a genetic element called Rider, a retrotransposon in tomatoes that may make them more drought resistant.10 By modifying the signaling of brassinosteroids, types of plant steroid hormones, another set of researchers determined these plants also would be more drought resistant.11
In addition to using technological innovation to respond to climate crises such as droughts, it’s imperative to examine how these methods may be able to increase crop yields and resist viruses or insects. One study that examined the impact of genetically engineered corn found that grain yield was 5.6% to 24.5% higher.12 In addition, the US papaya industry was saved after genetic engineering made the fruit resistant to the papaya ringspot virus.13 Plants that have natural insect resistance or are modified to resist insects and pests can reduce the reliance on insecticides, a key goal of producers and consumers alike.
What’s Next in Feeding a Growing Global Population?
Using a variety of processes for reasons related to insect and drought resistance, food insecurity, sustainability, food allergies or intolerances, nutrition, and more, scientists are developing tools to create new varieties of food products, including crops. Proteus, developed by Kemin Industries, is a new technology that recovers proteins from meat byproducts. These proteins can decrease waste and be used as salt and phosphate replacements to bind water in deli meats, resulting in higher-quality luncheon meats with reduced sodium content. Processes that increase protein content and decrease lactose content in dairy products can ensure nutrient-dense dairy options are available to those who can’t consume products with higher amounts of lactose. In addition to implementing different processing techniques for existing foods, technological innovations have led to the development of new foods and beverages such as plant-based dairy and meat alternatives.
Genome editing is another process that includes techniques to make it easier and quicker than traditional breeding to make changes. There are several genome editing tools that can be used to make crops more nutritious, drought tolerant, and insect and disease resistant. The gene editing technology CRISPR is working to produce tomatoes with higher vitamin C levels and that are resistant to bacterial spot disease; white button mushrooms that have a longer shelf life; rice with increased grain yield; and citrus foods with resistance to “citrus greening” disease.14 Possibly most notable, the technology has been used to modify genes in wheat to reduce gluten, showcasing how vital this technology may be for those with food allergies or intolerances.
Applications for RDs
A survey conducted by the Center for Food Integrity found that 63% of consumers want to know more about food processing.15 Dietitians are in a unique position as health and nutrition change makers to not only educate but also thoughtfully engage consumers on the subject of food processing and technological innovations that positively contribute to the food system. RDs can learn more and stay up to date with what food technologists are doing to meet consumer demand and improve the food supply. IFT is a valuable resource for RDs as an organization that strives to advance the science of food and its applications across the global food system. With tools and resources, such as the Food Processing Toolkit, IFT can bridge the gap between technology in the food system and consumers.
“Registered dietitian nutritionists are valuable experts in not only nutrition but in helping consumers understand our food system, which includes technology and innovation,” says Eric Decker, PhD, a professor and head of the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It is imperative that food technologists continue to engage RDNs to share about the positive impacts these advances can have on food and nutrition and, ultimately, health.”
It’s also essential for ew technologies and how they’re applied to provide a safe, nutritious, sustainable, and affordable food supply. RDs can use their knowledge gained from colleagues working in this space, from organizations such as IFT, and from real-world experience to engage with their audiences around the safety of food technologies and innovations. They also can make it relatable by showcasing how these technologies currently exist all around us.
According to Mintel research presented earlier this year that examined consumer behaviors, consumers are now cooking at home more often. What better way to engage consumers around technology than to embrace all the ways it exists in their own kitchens—from apples that no longer brown to papayas that are now resistant to a virus that almost made them extinct, and corn that was less than $1 per ear, all made possible by technological innovations.
— Stephanie S. Hodges, MS, MPH, RDN, is a registered dietitian with Pollock Communications, where she specializes in agriculture, child nutrition, food policy, and nutrition communications.
1. World population prospects 2019. United Nations website. https://population.un.org/wpp/
2. International Food Information Council. 2021 Food & Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/IFIC-2021-Food-and-Health-Survey.May-2021-1.pdf. Published May 19, 2021.
3. New plant breeding technologies for food security. Institute of Food Technologists website. https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/news/2019/april/01/new-plant-breeding-technologies-for-food-security. Published April 1, 2019.
4. Produce for Better Health Foundation. State of the Plate: America’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Trends. https://fruitsandveggies.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020-PBH-State-Of-The-Plate-Executive-Summary-1.pdf. Published April 2021.
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13. Biotechnology FAQs. United States Department of Agriculture website. https://www.usda.gov/topics/biotechnology/biotechnology-frequently-asked-questions-faqs
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