As food production must increase to meet the needs of the growing global population, so must food security and nutritional sustainability. Despite the rapid scientific and technological advances throughout the twentieth century to feed billions of people, problems with starvation and nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, protein and calories persist in all regions of the world. Business needs for efficient production at lower costs have typically prioritized crops with fast growth, high yield and ease of transport over nutrient quality.
At the same time, a growing consciousness that diet and nutrition are essential components of health and wellbeing are changing food preferences and production. A recognition that proper nutrition plays an important role in preventative healthcare has prompted many consumers to choose foods that are perceived to promote physical and mental health. Beyond personal consumption habits, changes at the governmental regulatory level demonstrate an awareness and concern for the repercussions of obesity and malnutrition on society, such as a greater burden on the healthcare system.
Part of the mandate of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for example, is providing consumers with trustworthy nutrition information while developing clearer guidance on nutritional requirements to inform policy. Food companies are increasingly interested in conforming to emerging regulations and enhancing their reputations for being nutritional – but these expressed goals sometimes conflict with their proliferation of profitable but unhealthy products.
Development of Processed Foods
While humans have been cooking food since pre-historic times, processing on a mass scale that substantially changes the initial product has advanced with the industrial revolution. Various food processing actions permit improvements to taste, appearance, shelf life and many other factors important to consumers, allowing global food transportation and a more diverse diet. Most people enjoy the value, consistency and convenience provided by processed foods but there are increasing concerns about certain additives, trans fats, sodium and genetically modified organisms often included in these products.
An alarming increase of chronic diseases in recent decades has been partially attributed to diet, according to food industry studies. Overproduction and antibiotics in factory farming, pesticides, long storage and transportation, and excessive salt and sugar additives are some causes of declining nutrients in food.
Processing can reduce a food’s nutritional value, but it can also improve it. For instance, water-soluble vitamins are often lost during heat processing but newer non-thermal processes help to retain vitamins. Frozen vegetables picked and frozen within hours actually retain more vitamin C than fresh ones. Many foods are now enriched with vitamins and minerals to address notable nutrient deficiencies. The European food industry is particularly active in performing innovative research in collaboration with universities to improve processing techniques and better meet consumer preferences.
Exciting Advances in Nutrition
The shift in focus from taste to nutrition has not been smooth for many larger corporations, as they balance demand for long-term health with short-term profits. The International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), which represents some of the largest multinationals, has promised to make healthier products, advertise food responsibly and promote exercise.
Companies may remove bad ingredients, add better ones or introduce entirely new products. Coca-Cola has decreased average calories in its drinks by 9% since 2000 while other companies are launching healthier options or analysing their offerings for ways to improve nutrition. Clearer nutritional labelling, such as the European Commission’s new regulations and the voluntary Choices logo in the Netherlands, help consumers to better understand what they are eating.
Many low-fat alternatives and foods fortified with bioactives like antioxidants, probiotics and certain omega-3 fatty acids that provide health benefits have been introduced to market. Rapid screening methods utilized by food technology graduates can identify bioactivity, similar to the approach for drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry. Future innovations may include nanotechnology and personalized nutrition, the customization of diets to genetic makeup, however much research still needs to be conducted on these topics.
Which other methods of promoting nutrition have you discovered in your food industry courses?