Food is a basic requirement for human survival. And with increasing knowledge about how much food affects our health and survival outcomes, humankind has become aware of the importance of eating well. Good food brings good health. The increasing demand for healthy food has spawned a lot of research in developing technologies around food processing and preservation in order to meet these growing demands. Below is a review of some of the latest research and breakthroughs in food technology.
1. Sentinel wrap tracks real-time food spoilage
Designed by the scientists at McMaster University in Canada, a sentinel wrap can help detect when the food is about to spoil. It is a transparent polymer film that can be used for food packaging. One side of the film contains a sensor fabricated by covalently attaching picoliter-sized microarrays of RNA cleaving fluorogenic DNAzyme probe. When pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella come in contact with the probe, the oligonucleotide connecting the fluorogenic and quencher substrates of the DNAzyme is cleaved, as a result of which, the DNAzyme fluoresce. Using a smartphone app, the fluorescence can be detected to determine the spoilage of food. Sentinel wrap can be produced cheaply with inkjet-printing of DNAzymes onto the polymer and the technology can be easily monitored since it produces real-time results. No sampling is required since the patch is as small as the size of a postage stamp and can be wrapped inside the package of the food. (Source: ACS Nano)
2. Edipeel is an edible coating that increases the shelf-life of perishable fruits and vegetables.
Apeel Sciences, a California-based company, has developed a polymer coating for fruits and vegetables to increase their shelf-life. Edipeel is made from non-toxic organic compounds like lipids and glycerolipids, which are derived from the unwanted peels, seeds, and pulp of various types of fruits and vegetables, and is thus, edible without any taste or odor. The product comes as a water-soluble powder that forms a colorless layer outside the fruits and vegetables. The resulting protective seal prevents dehydration and oxidation of fruits and can double their shelf-life. So far, avocados with this coating have already started to hit the US markets. This formulation can be modified for strawberries, mangoes, apples, bananas, kumquats, and asparagus.
3. Near Field Communication (NFC) sensor to test food spoilage
A collaborative team from Nanjing University and the University of Texas at Austin recently published a research paper about their research discussing an integrated sensor and a small NFC tag. The nanostructured conductive polymer-based gas sensor is capable of detecting compounds known as biogenic amines (BAs) that are responsible for the unpleasant odor of decomposing meat. It can detect the amount of BAs, which could go unnoticed by human nose and quantify them. NFC technology essentially enables two nearby electronic devices to establish communication and exchange information. When the sensors detect BAs, they can automatically switch on the NFC tags and transmit signals to nearby, paired smartphones (within 10 cm) wirelessly. This will allow one to know if the meat is in a good enough condition to be consumed. (Source: ACS Nano Letters)
4. Cultured/Lab-grown meat
Are you an animal lover and a meat lover? If you like your bacon, but shudder at the thought of pigs getting slaughtered, then this new technology is the answer for you. Cultured meat, also known as clean meat or lab-grown meat or in vitro meat, is synthetically produced meat by the in vitro cultivation of animal cells. The cell growth is based on the idea of the regenerative principle of tissue engineering. The starter cells for clean meat are embryonic or adult stem cells because of their rapid rate of proliferation, and myosatellite cells and myoblast cells, which are both muscle cells that have the ability to differentiate and develop fully and grow at a considerable rate. These starter cells are extracted using biopsy probes from animals under anesthesia. The cells are grown in a suitable culture medium in a bioreactor, where they proliferate and differentiate into muscle tissues. The research team at Maastricht University led by Mark Post created the world’s first hamburger made from lab-grown meat in 2013, and the technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then.
5. Virus cocktail to treat food poisoning
One of the major food-induced illness is food poisoning. A group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Baltimore-based pharmaceutical company Intralytix recently published their research into managing bacterial infections. They did so by using lytic bacteriophages, including those caused by multidrug-resistant pathogens. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the research proposes consuming a cocktail of selective bacteriophages, which travel to gut and kill the pathogenic strains of bacteria such as E. coli. The virus cocktail will help flush out the food poisoning causing bacteria without antibiotics and without disturbing beneficial gut microbiota. (Source: Gut Microbes)
6. CellPod: Home appliance to grow cultured food
The plant biotechnology research scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have developed a home appliance known as CellPod. The CellPod can grow the ingredients for a healthy meal from a plant cell culture and can be harvested within a week. The 3D-printed research prototype has already been successful in growing Finnish berries, Arctic bramble cells, cloudberry cells, and stone bramble cells. It also enables the production of healthy food from plants other than traditional crops, such as birch. The device resembles a design lamp and is suitable to be placed on a kitchen table. The concept of CellPod is based on growing undifferentiated plant cells which contains the entire genetic potential of the plant. Therefore, only the best parts of the plant can be cultivated and their nutritive value such as antioxidants, vitamins can be enhanced.
7. MATS: A game changer for packaged foods
There is a high demand for pre-packaged foods today. Technology like Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATSTM) and Microwave Assisted Pasteurization (MAPSTM) techniques help provide consumers with high quality, natural, and additive-free packaged foods. MATS technique involves immersing packaged food in pressurized hot water while simultaneously heating with 915 MHz, long-wavelength microwave energy. This will help eliminate pathogens and spoilage microorganisms within a matter of minutes. By shortening the duration of time the food is exposed to high temperatures, the technology helps preserve the color, taste, and texture of food while eliminating the need for excess sodium, additives, and enhancer. Even though the discovery of this technique dates back to quite a few years, the increasing demand has brought it to the forefront of food technology. The multibillion-dollar retail company, Amazon, is planning to implement 915 Labs’ MATS technology to deliver high-quality food directly to customers just like the military sector makes its use to improve food quality for soldiers in combat.
8. CRISPR’d foods
Gene-editing has helped create plants that produce higher yields to meet the growing demand along with higher nutritional content. We have heard about the success of genetically altered cabbage in Sweden, followed by raising orphan crops like ground cherries in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and also genetically modified low-fat pigs in China that could be bred for healthier, leaner bacon. With such successes, the gene-editing tool CRISPR is also helping advance food technology that caters to a range of food-related concerns, such as wheat with reduced gluten, corn that can adapt and thrive in drought-like condition, more flavorful tomatoes, increased rice grain production in adverse climatic conditions, naturally decaffeinated coffee beans, mushrooms that do not brown when bruised or cut, improved variety of wine-quality grapes, bananas resistant to fungus attacks, and cacao plants resistant to a virus ravaging West Africa’s cacao crops in order to protect the global chocolate supply. Benefitted by relatively rapid results than transgenic engineering (GMOs), CRISPR gene editing is thus driving scientific and commercial interest in food technology.