Ensuring future food is “healthier and more sustainable” with plant proteins, policy changes and insects


20 Aug 2020 — The need for healthier and sustainable food prevails. On this topic, FoodIngredientsFirst attended British Nutrition Foundation (BNF)’s webinar showcasing a variety of emergent alternative protein sources and food technologies with significant potential to reinforce the nutritional profile of F&B offerings. Meanwhile, adequate micronutrient intake has become top of mind for consumers and formulators, as COVID-19 mortalities have been linked to obesity and other diet-related health issues. The experts further explore how F&B reformulations and policy changes can work hand-in-hand to tackle the ubiquitous challenge of nutritional deficiencies.

Presenter Dr. Simon Loveday, Food & Bio-based Products Group, AgResearch and The Riddet Institute, sees potential in the exploration of novel plant proteins helping to address dietary needs. These range from alfalfa leaves to duckweed and algae. Not only do these new food proteins need to be substantiated as safe and legal, but they must also be cost-effective and consistently of high quality to be allowed to market, he notes.

“Personally, I’m excited about proteins extracted from food materials that would otherwise be wasted. Protein from potato peel is a great example and this has been recently commercialized by Avebe in the Netherlands,” Dr. Loveday remarks.

Click to EnlargeDr. Loveday discusses the environmental impact and technical challenges of plant proteins.Despite the massive consumer shift toward meat alternatives and plant proteins, Dr. Loveday argues that his research findings do not suggest that the latter should replace the former entirely. “Plant proteins often lack essential amino acids and are difficult to dissolve and purify.”

“Many people assume that ‘plant-based’ means ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable.’ In many cases, that’s true, but some plant-based foods are highly processed. We are at the start of the plant-based foods revolution and there are some assumptions about the healthiness and sustainability of plant-based foods that need to be tested on a case-by-case basis. I look forward to the next generation of plant protein ingredients and foods that are healthy, sustainable and delicious,” he affirms.

Insects and cellular agriculture
There is a growing consumer population that is looking not to miss out on the animal protein properties discussed in Loveday’s presentation, but which still has reservations about the detrimental effect of mass industrial farming on the planet. Professor Julian McClements from the  University of Massachusetts Amherst highlights that cellular agriculture, lab-grown meat and insect protein may be propitious to deliver on all of these consumers’ expectations.

“[Insects] are already being accepted by a growing number of people in the developed world. These first-adopters are typically younger socially-conscious individuals. We have a yuck factor about eating a cricket, but not a cow, pig or chicken, which is strange. If you looked at a cow in a farmer’s field, would you think ‘delicious, I want to eat that?’” he questions. 

Click to EnlargeFor meat alternatives to become accepted mainstream options, Professor McClements highlights taste won’t be enough.To make it in the Western food industry, insect protein will have to convince consumers of its environmental benefits compared to meat as well as deliver on affordability and taste. The same applies to cultured meat. 

“The products will have to eventually get very close to the price of real meat to be competitive, so this is where the industry is aiming. There are still a number of challenges to overcome, especially scaling up and costs, but companies claim they will have products on the market within a few years. These will probably be high-end, high-cost products designed for expensive restaurants where the high price is less of an issue. As prices decrease, then products will be designed for the mass market,” Professor McClements predicts. 

Tackling reformulation challenges
Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General of the BNF, details that food reformulation can be effective in ensuring a variety of healthier food options for consumers without greatly changing their dietary patterns, but faces a number of practical obstacles.

“Compared to sugar reduction in drinks, some foods are difficult to reformulate without affecting taste, consistency or safety. In some cases, the limits of what is possible with reformulation may already have been reached. Also, for some foods, such as chocolate, there are legal compositional constraints or other regulatory constraints that hinder the ability to talk about improvements on pack,” she explains.

A reduction of portion sizes is highlighted as another effective pathway to curb overeating. Dr. Buttriss also goes into detail about the positive knock-on effect of subsidizing food instead of medicine to ensure consumers with fewer financial means obtain the correct balance of nutrients in the longterm. 

Click to EnlargeThere is a significant relationship between diet-related disease and death from COVID-19. Professor Buttriss details that balanced diets can prevent the link.“The voucher scheme for pregnant women and young children is an example of a scheme to subsidize some of the nutritious foods important for these groups, such as milk and vegetables. Another example is the provision of free school meals for children most in need,” adds Dr. Buttriss.

Overall, improving the quality of the diet is the “best approach” for decelerating the downward trend in micronutrient intake, most notably via the “five a day” method. “Average intakes of fruit and vegetables in teenagers are much the same as among toddlers. We need to better understand how to encourage people to take up existing dietary advice,” Professor Buttriss emphasizes.

This BNF webinar was hosted ahead of its quarterly Nutrition Bulletin Special Issue publication. This quarter’s edition, Food reformulation and innovation: Future solutions for healthier and more sustainable diets will be published during the last week of August. 

By Anni Schleicher

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