This Is Your Food On Science

The Top 8 Food Innovations That Will Redeem The Food Industry

Food is nourishment. Food is energy. Food is life. Or at least it used to be. Over the past several decades, science has been used to innovate the good out of food, turning food into something else—something cheap, something quick, something ironically unfood-like. Pasteurization, homogenization, preservatives, etc. were introduced with good intentions—to make food safer, to increase the convenience of food, and to enable a longer shelf-life for perishable items. But this convenience brought with it many consequences, both for the planet and people.

Society has reached a tipping point. Eaters are demanding fresher, healthier, more food-like options. So much so, that many eaters are running in the complete opposite direction, utterly rejecting anything science-related in favor of an au naturel food lifestyle (Paleo, raw diets, etc.). But for the mass consumer, the average joe, the 99%, such a lifestyle isn’t attainable or sustainable. Regardless of their food IQ or preferences, most people need a little science sprinkled on their organic, grass-fed, locally raised, roasted over an open fire chicken breast.

The truth is, science itself was never the problem, how the science was applied and goals of the innovation (convenience, etc.) were the problem. There shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to be, a battle between science and nature—when used thoughtfully, science can work to enhance and strengthen nature.

What follows is a list of what we consider to be ten of the most promising innovations and harmonious applications of science and nature in food today. From creating new textures that help address contemporary dietary and environmental concerns to preserving food without destroying precious nutrients to cultivating new ways to coax flavor and nutritional benefit from whole foods, science is helping the food industry redeem our food, and themselves.

 

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High Pressure Processing

What it is: High Pressure Processing (HPP) is a pressure treatment procedure that dramatically extends the shelf-life of food and halts enzymatic degradation, without the use of heat. The principles behind HPP have been understood for over a century, though it wasn't until the 1970s that the process became commercially viable.

Why it matters: In the past, we've made food more safe by subjecting it to extreme temperatures which kill or inhibit the growth of noxious bacteria, molds and viruses (e.g. freezing and pasteurizing). Those temperatures make significant compromises on nutritional value and flavor, while HPP's "cold-pasteurization" process retains food quality, and prolongs the natural freshness of raw ingredients.

New Trends:

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Freeze Drying

What it is: Originally developed by NASA, freeze-drying is a dehydration technique that uses pressure to transform the solid water in frozen foods directly into vapor, without an intermediate liquid phase.

Why it matters: Freeze-drying produces light-weight, shelf-stable products with flavor, texture, and nutritional value superior to both freezing and traditional dehydration. Freeze-dried foods are better for you, and taste better, too. They're cheaper to transport and, as result, better for the environment.

New Trends:

  • Several vendors are selling freeze dried vegetables (peas, corn, etc.) as crunchy-healthy alternatives to other fried snacks. (Harmony House, North Bay Trading,Brothers-All-NaturalCrispy Green, CostCo, Just Tomatoes Etc!)
  • Bellyrubs freeze-dries dog snacks in order to deliver fresh, superior nutrition, without the processing or preservatives.
  • Navitas Naturals is using freeze-drying to make "superfood" supplements that preserve the nutritional value and functional benefits of exotic ingredients harvested from far-away places, like açai berries and dragonfruit.
  • For a lecture at Harvard University, NYC chef David Chang, developed an improved "instant ramen" recipe with freeze dried chicken, shrimp, and pork. (video) (Eater coverage)
  • Litehouse is seeking to redeem the reputation of dried herbs with the brand's "Instantly Fresh" line of freeze dried herbs. McCormick is dabbling as well, with 

 

Fermentation

What it is: We eat fermented foods everyday: beer, wine, cheese, bread, vinegar — "many of our most basic pantry staples rely on targeted cultivation of yeast and bacteria. Historically, consumers had a bad attitude towards those "germs," but in the last few years, fermentation has become a culinary buzzword.

Why it matters: Fermented foods contain essential nutrients and unique flavors that can't be obtained any other way.

New Trends:

  • Kevita, a probiotic sparkling water company, uses a proprietary culture with four strains of live probiotics. In 2014, they were included inInc Magazine’s “500 fastest growing private companies in America.”
  • Kombucha is a fermented tea that has quickly evolved from niche beverage to a $100mm mainstream market.  
  • Kaizen Trading Company, a side project of NYC’s Momofuku restaurant group, is using old-world fermentation techniques on non-traditional ingredients. Initial research has focused on discovering new flavors in familiar foods by using the Japanese fermentation process used to create miso and soy sauce on a  variety of nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes.
  • In 2013, fermentation was the subject of at least two books by world-renowned chefs Salvador Katz (The Art of Fermentation) and Michael Pollan (Cooked).

Rotary Evaporation

What it is: Rotary Evaporators use pressure to significantly reduce the boiling point of water when reducing or distilling liquids. A lower boiling point means it's possible to preserve delicate, volatile aromas destroyed when heating liquids.

Why it matters: Influential bartenders and chefs are enthusiastically embracing rotary evaporators as one of the most pure ways to capture and concentrate the flavor of a raw ingredient—think of lemon vodka with the aroma of a fresh lemon, or an orange juice reduction with the raw flavor of the original ingredient.

New Trends:

 

Vacuum Packing

What it is: Vacuum Packaging is a process that uses a vacuum pump to seal food in airtight plastic bags—"think Foodsaver, but more powerful. It's been used extensively in packaged food for decades, as reduced oxygen environments significantly extend the shelf-life of perishable foods.

Why it matters: In the past decade, three important, off-label uses for vacuum packing have emerged:

  • Sous-Vide: Most famously, vacuum packaging has been critical to the development of sous-vide cooking, a technique which uses a water bath to cook vacuum packaged food to precise temperatures. Sous-vide prevents overcooking, increases yields, preserves flavor, and can be used to cook food with unique textures. (Guardian,Modernist Cuisine,LifeHacker)
  • Vacuum Compression for Fruit and Vegetables: Vacuum sealers remove air from plastic packages by temporarily reducing surrounding pressure. During that process, air and moisture within the food rapidly expand and rupture the porous tissue of plants. When the process is complete, the empty air-filled spaces collapse, yielding a unique, toothsome texture. (Chefsteps)
  • Vacuum Infusion: The vacuum sealing process also rapidly facilitates marinating and infusion processes, which normally take days or even weeks  

New Trends:

  • Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods selling pre-marinated vacuum packed meat and fish.
  • Consumer sous-vide cooking baths are available at Williams-Sonoma (#1#2,#3)
  • Polyscience released a consumer-grade Chamber Vacuum sealer for $1000.
  • Adding one more: Kickstarter success a few years ago $299, works in any pot.


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Functional Foods

What it is: Food scientists have developed an arsenal of additives derived from synthetic, plant, and animal sources that affect the viscosity, texture, and mouthfeel of food. These are the hard-to-pronounce items, like "xanthan gum," "pea protein isolate," and "tapioca maltodextrin" that appear the end of the ingredient lists.

Why it matters: Historically such additives have been used for efficiency and to ensure consistency in industrial production, and as a result, they've earned a bad rap with consumers. But put in the right hands, and applied judiciously, they allow chefs to modify the shape and texture of food without compromising on flavor.

New Trends:

  • Inspired by the fact that livestock production is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas-emissions, Beyond Meat, a California-based startup, has used the binding powers of pea protein isolate, in tandem with High Pressure Processing to develop a chicken substitute with an uncanny resemblance to the real thing. (see below for more information on HPP)
  • Hampton Creek, another California-based vegetarian startup, has made it its mission to eliminate the need for eggs in the American diet. They’ve developed vegan mayonnaise and chocolate-chip cookies, and intend to introduce a plant-based scrambled egg substitute in the near future.
  • A pastry chef at famous California restaurant, The French Laundry, has developed a wildly popular gluten-free flour calledCup4Cup, made from xanthan gum, milk powder, and proprietary blend of corn, tapioca, rice, and potato starches. (NYTimes,Vogue)
  • Chefsteps, an online science and cooking resource, recently published a black bean veggie burger eerily similar to meat by binding black beans with transglutaminase, a special enzyme derived from soil bacteria.

On the Horizon

Genetically Modified Organisms

What it is: Corporate giants like Monsanto have given Genetically Modified Organisms a bad rap, but technology the bio-technology that makes GMO possible has tremendously positive potential.

Why we're not there yet: The most high profile GMO-for-good venture, Golden Rice, has been met with staunch political opposition. The project, which is funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has developed a genetically modified rice varietal enriched with beta carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A.  Golden Rice was created to serve Vitamin-A deficient children and adults across the Philippines and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Golden Rice also has lower yields than traditional rice varieties, and efforts to introduce it have been met with protests from local farmers, as well as public denouncement from Greenpeace.

3D Printing

What it is: 3D printers may not yet be particularly efficient, but several companies are already testing how this futuristic technology can transform the way we eat. Soon we’ll be able to create chocolates, candy, and pasta via programmable extrusion, on demand.

Why we're not there yet: The technology is still in its infancy. For the foreseeable future, 3D printers will only be able to extrude food in paste form, and there's only so much that can be done with printed paste.