17 Jul 2019

Nuts & Bolts—Take A Bite Out of Food Innovation


Fresh, filling and functional foods
Three TechOffers to shake up the food value chain

From designer shoes to bespoke suits, society places a premium on high quality, made-to-measure merchandise. In recent years, similar demands have been made of the food industry.

Consumers are becoming more conscious about what they put in their bodies, which means food suppliers have to provide greater assurances of how fresh and nutritious their products are. Furthermore, people increasingly regard food as more than something taken just to stave off hunger; all the better if food can also maintain or increase health—that is, food should ideally be functional, not just filling.

An industry report estimates that the market for functional foods will reach a market size of US$275.7 billion by 2025, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 7.9 percent. This represents huge opportunities for businesses in the food supply chain, and innovation is key to unlocking the value of these shifting perceptions toward food. We bring you three TechOffers for assessing the quality of food items and creating novel, more wholesome food products.


Seeing through shells

Compared to other sources of animal protein, seafood often carries a heftier price tag. For example, customers visiting a seafood restaurant for a meal of crab can expect to shell out hundreds of dollars. To get bang for their buck, they would expect to have fleshy crustaceans on their plates.

However, restaurant owners sometimes have difficulty ensuring the meatiness of their crab stocks. Current methods for grading crabs are typically based on insider knowledge or experience, which may vary in terms of their stringency and consistency.

Now, researchers have developed a non-invasive spectroscopic approach for crustacean meat quality grading, which allows robust and reliable evaluation of the quality of crab meat using near-infrared light. Basically, near-infrared light is applied to the crabs and interacts with macronutrients found in the crabs’ equivalent of blood, producing what is known as a spectral fingerprint indicative of meat quality. Readings taken can be displayed on an app for convenient viewing and tracking.

The technology can be used for other types of food as well. For instance, the inventors have demonstrated in a pilot trial that their spectroscopic technique can distinguish between sweet, bitter-sweet and bitter durian varieties. This tool thus brings a strong scientific angle to food quality control.


Tastes you can tune

The scientific method can also be applied to the preparation of food. Often, optimising the taste, texture and nutritional content of food can be difficult because the relationships among ingredients, their properties, proportions and interactions are not well defined. Now, an analysis platform is available to help companies systematically dissect how different ingredients confer food with specific properties.

Importantly, the technology can also recommend novel ingredients to create customised formulations that retain the original taste and texture of a familiar food product while improving its nutritional content. For instance, a company could produce a chocolate chip cookie that looks, tastes and feels no different from others, but is high in fibre and protein, and has a low glycaemic index.

The inventors note that their platform can produce a prototype of functionally enhanced food items within three to five iterations. They have validated their method by using it to formulate Asia’s first reduced-calorie, reduced-fat and reduced-sugar ice cream that remains luxuriously creamy despite its drastically altered nutrient profile.


Liberating the good stuff

When we consume food, the intake of nutrients is only one half of the equation—nutrients need to be absorbed if they are to be used by the body. Certain compounds in food, known as anti-nutrients, can actually inhibit the absorption of nutrients in the gut. One example is phytic acid found in grains like barley, rice and wheat, which blocks the absorption of minerals in the gut.

A Singapore-based biotechnology company has since developed a process to remove anti-nutrients in plant-based ingredients. The technique not only releases previously ‘locked’ nutrients but also enhances the activity of the released nutrients with the help of food-grade microbes such as bacteria and yeast. The company is also working on developing the outputs of their process into various product formats for use in the manufacturing of ready-to-eat foods and ready-to-drink beverages.

According to the inventors, breakfast cereals, snacks, milk and tea are among the food product classes that could benefit from their anti-nutrient removal process. In the future, the technology could also be used in the manufacture of nutraceuticals—food products that may modify and maintain health.

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