Newsletter: March 6, 2018

Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

Packaging that’s good enough to eat

Edible Packaging
Photo courtesy: USDA Agricultural Research Service
Edible food wraps made of casein, a milk protein, not only do a good job of protecting food by preventing spoilage-causing oxidation, but they also have the potential to significantly reduce food waste, say the creators of the wraps, scientists with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS). 

“We are unsure of the specific, underlying biochemical mechanisms, but we know the wraps are made of natural, edible compounds that bond tightly together, forming a tight seal that prevents oxygen from passing through the material,” says Peggy M. Tomasula, research leader of the ARS Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit in Wyndmoor, Pa., who came up with the concept. “The oxygen passes through at rates that are up to 500 times slower, in some instances, than existing wrapping material.”  

The packaging looks like commercially available food wraps, and because it is made from casein proteins extracted from milk, no U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval would be required to bring it to market. ARS is currently pursuing options to commercialize the technology via licensing. Possible applications include pouches to hold powdered soup or instant coffee; there is also the potential to apply an edible film directly to products like candy and cheese sticks.  

ARS researchers continue to explore ways to make the wraps stronger, “stretchier,” and more water resistant. Adding an alkali compound to the wrap can help achieve these outcomes. Another additive with potential to improve the quality of the wrap is pectin, which appears to form a fishnet-like network around the casein particles, making for a stronger film. In addition to film wraps, ARS scientists are also working on coatings applied from a liquid that is sprayed or brushed onto food or into which food can be dipped. The spray-on application could be used to replace sugar coatings on dry cereals, to add protein, and to help keep the cereal crunchy when milk is added. 


Anaerobic waste treatment could help produce food during deep-space flight
Deep Space FlightDeep-space travel to Mars or beyond presents a number of challenges, including the need for food that would sustain astronauts for months or even years. But what if food could be grown en route? Researchers from Penn State University explored the possibility, with promising results that were reported in a study published in Life Sciences in Space Research

“We responded to a call for proposals from NASA related to deep space flight and space colonization,” says researcher Christopher House, professor of geosciences at Penn State. “Given our background in geomicrobiology, we naturally tried to think of ways microbiology could support deep space flight.” Starting with an artificial solid and liquid waste commonly used in waste management tests, they created an enclosed, cylindrical system, four feet long by four inches in diameter, in which select microbes came into contact with the waste and broke it down using anaerobic digestion, a process similar to the way humans digest food.

The team discovered that methane produced during anaerobic digestion of human waste could be used to grow a different microbe, Methylococcus capsulatus, which is currently used as animal feed. It’s possible, the researchers believe, that such microbial growth could be used to develop a nutritious food for deep space flight that can be directly consumed or used to produce other high-protein food sources such as fish.

“Our components couple waste treatment to food production without the need for separate collection of solid and liquid waste,” noted the researchers. Because of this, the study components have the potential to “complement systems of food production, such as growth of higher plants and aquaculture, while effectively recycling nutrients and water.”

“Our paper was only an initial concept,” says House. “There would certainly need to be considerable additional research and engineering before it could be useful for human space flight. There are many competing trades in deep space flight, because almost everything on the spacecraft is a precious resource.” 


CRISPR helps to ensure the future of chocolate production
CRISPR ChocolateResearchers at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) at University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) are involved in a project to ensure that consumers can enjoy chocolate for years to come despite the environmental issues that could make cacao trees extinct. By reducing the amount of land suitable for growing cacao trees, climate change in cacao-growing regions can foster the proliferation of viruses and fungal diseases that kill cacao trees. IGI scientists are using CRISPR technology to stem the spread of disease and make cacao trees sustainable.

CRISPR is a genome-editing system that mimics the process bacteria use to become immune to antagonists such as viruses or antimicrobials. The scientists are tweaking cacao genes to make them resistant to untreatable plant pathogens that further reduce the production of a sweet commodity that is already being limited by shrinking land resources. “Cacao can be afflicted by several devastating conditions,” says Brian Staskawicz, a professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley. “We’re developing CRISPR editing technologies to alter the DNA in cacao plants to become more resistant to both viral and fungal diseases.” Staskawicz and Myeong-Je Cho, director and principal investigator of the Plant Genomics Transformation Facility at the IGI, are working with a team of scientists that are being funded by Mars Corporation.

The successes the IGI plant genomics team has with gene-edited cacao may be useful for other crops. “Similar strategies should be useful for protecting a variety of plants from infection, including important crops like cassava, rice, and wheat,” Staskawicz says.


Building ag robots to harvest only ripe produce
Ag RobotsThe global agriculture industry faces several challenges including an increasing shortage of seasonal workers for harvesting and the declining economic viability of farming given the intense manual labor involved and high per-unit cost. For some countries, this has resulted in the exodus of farming to more economically viable areas such as Eastern Europe and India. In order to compete and to produce enough high-quality food at affordable prices, improved harvesting technologies are needed.

As a part of the European Union’s CATCH project, researchers are working to develop a dual-arm robot for the automated harvesting of cucumbers in Germany. Currently, cucumbers are harvested by hand with the aid of a “cucumber flyer”—a vehicle with two large wing-like arms. The seasonal workers lie on their stomachs and grab cucumbers from the ground as the vehicle works its way through the farm. This labor-intensive manual method is forcing farming out of the country. Researchers from Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK in Berlin, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy in Germany, and the CSIC-UPM Center for Automation and Robotics (CAR) in Spain, are working on a robotic system to automate cucumber harvesting.

There are many inherent challenges in creating a robot to do what may seem easy to humans. “The common issue is ‘selective harvesting’—finding and picking only the best ripe fruits,” explains Dragoljub Surdilovic, senior scientist and head of the robotic group and laboratory at Fraunhofer IPK. “The main difficulty is to recognize and localize the green fruits in a green environment and to separate them without damaging the cucumber and the plant.”

To address this part of the challenge, the researchers at CSIC-UPM have developed a special camera system that enables the robot to detect and locate approximately 88%–94% of the cucumbers. While impressive, Surdilovic says European cultivars require 100% of the cucumbers to be detected to support the growing of the next generation. “We are now trying to integrate additional sensors to detect fluids in the cucumbers in order to improve the rate,” says Surdilovic.

“Grasping and separating the cucumber are the next challenge,” states Surdilovic. “Industrial grippers are not designed for sensitive biological products.” Surdilovic and the other Fraunhofer IPK researchers are developing three gripper prototypes: a gripper based on vacuum technology, a set of bionic gripper jaws, and a customized “cucumber hand” based on OpenBionics robot hands. “Detecting and cutting the stem is actually our main concern,” explains Surdilovic. “We are developing innovative ‘blind-like’ strategies to pull/position fruits—using force sensing in the gripper—and separate the stem.”

In addition to developing robots that can successfully harvest a variety of crops, researchers like Surdilovic are working with others to develop new cultivars that are more suitable for detection and automatic harvesting. Either way, “automation and robotics can greatly contribute to solving actual problems and can change the agricultural world,” said Surdilovic. “It’s very challenging and motivating work.”

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