Food technology as a profession is responsible for the technical aspects of development of food products, food processes, and distribution of these products to consumers. Since the ultimate target of these efforts is the satisfaction of the consumer, it is essential to consider not only the objective consumer needs (e.g., nutrition, safety, affordability), but also subjective aspects of consumer satisfaction (e.g., organoleptic properties and consumer attitudes).
It is in the area of consumer needs and wants that we encounter some of the most difficult problems in fostering rational development of food technology. No matter how excellent a product is from the objective point of view of a scientist focusing on nutrition, safety, stability, and apparent functionality, a product is not successful if it does not please the consumer sufficiently to make him or her buy it.
It is obvious that individual preferences for foods depend on personal attitudes developed throughout life, as well as on the various fashions and lifestyles promoted by the media, including prominently the impact of advertising. Since the most important evidence of consumer satisfaction is the consumer’s willingness to continue to purchase food products—also the most significant criterion for a company’s success in its goal of making a profit—it is not surprising that marketing and advertising are the dominant activities of the food industry. As a result, research and development are often the “stepchildren” of company management.
Paying Attention to Food Science
I believe that the coming years and decades will demand of the food industry a much greater attention to the scientific aspects of consumer needs and desires, and to the potential for satisfying them through food technology. Several developments will increase the need for paying attention to food science and technology:
• Diets promoting optimal health are very prominent. Throughout the world, particularly the urbanized parts, “health-promoting” aspects of the diet are the subject of enormous and increasing public interest. A great variety of food components and food products have been promoted as being effective in health improvement and are sold throughout the world through a variety of marketing outlets, ranging from health “boutiques” to major supermarkets. The over whelming majority of claims of effectiveness are not supported by scientifically convincing and relevant evidence. While for the short run it may be feasible to generate profits by advertising unproved benefits, in the long run such a policy must backfire, to the great detriment of consumers (who may in the end lose reliable access to really beneficial dietary components, as well as the worthless products) and the food industry.
The only rational way to bring order and sanity to the chaotic universe of health claims and promotional campaigns is to provide a scientific basis for assessing, evaluating, and assuring the efficacy of food components. This is a major task for nutrition, toxicology, and food professionals.
• Lapses in food safety have global consequences. Recent developments in Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States involved several truly disastrous outbreaks leading to serious health risks and in many cases to fatalities (e.g., mad cow disease, contamination of animal feeds in Belgium, Listeria outbreaks in a number of countries). They produced not only deserved public concern about lack of adequate protection of the public, but also an atmosphere of near hysteria. This makes real protection of the public more difficult because the media do not differentiate between really dangerous problems and minor lapses of little consequence (e.g., occurrence of some charcoal particles derived from water filters in the processing of beverages). They also spill over into an anti-technology attitude (e.g., coining of the term Frankenstein foods for genetically modified materials), which in my opinion can only hurt the consumer in the long run. Food safety is an extremely serious issue, but it will not be assured by hysteric attitudes of the media, nor will it be promoted by officials who hide their head in the sand and whose usual immediate attitude is that there is no problem.
As in the case of proving the health enhancing value of foods, it is science that must provide the real data, the means for evaluating them, and the basis for technology to take adequate measures to achieve food safety.
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• Understanding food preferences and the relation between mood and diet is difficult. Understanding the human response to organoleptic properties presents problems because of the difficulty of correlating organoleptic properties with chemical composition and physical structure, and of quantifying customer response, given its susceptibility to factors beyond organoleptic properties (e.g., exposure to advertising, cultural factors, and heterogeneity of responses due to age, sex, and ethnic differences).
However, brain science is among the most rapidly advancing disciplines, and advances in this field will have a profound impact on food science, in particular in understanding the role of dietary components in control of appetite and satiety; the impact of dietary components on psychological states (i.e., the role of “mood foods”); and the role of the human nervous system, including the brain in converting signals from the sensory apparatus to provide the sensations of taste, flavor, and texture.
These advances will greatly change our capabilities in terms of rational engineering of food compositions, design of organoleptic tests, and development of sensors for quality measurements.
Meeting Consumer Needs and Preferences
Food science and technology is essential for producing food products with a desired functionality. I refer to functionality in the broadest sense, not just to the health-related properties usually considered in the current usage of the term “functional foods.” Food functionality here refers to the control of food properties to provide a desired set of organoleptic properties, wholesomeness (including nutrition, safety, and, indeed, all health-related functions), and properties related to processing and engineering, particularly ease of processing, storage stability, and minimal environmental impact.
One of the great challenges to food technology will be to put the development of “health-promoting foods” on a rational basis. Advances in biology and medicine have identified a number of diet-related factors contributing to human health and well-being. There is increasing pressure therefore to build into the food supply a much broader, proactive version of “wholesomeness.” It will involve continued and much-more-extensive efforts to avoid diseases and conditions due to food ingestion, but it will increasingly concern itself with production of foods actively promoting health and well-being—not only through macro-and micronutrients, but also through ingredients with more specific physiological functions, including the so-called area of “medical foods” or “nutraceuticals.” To make such foods feasible and effective, food research and development will have to focus on trace compounds, often phytochemicals with functionality fully determinable only by long-term studies in humans. Nevertheless, in-vitro assays based on metabolic function and interactions with the molecules controlling human physiology will be needed to facilitate the enormous efforts needed.
In the industrialized countries at least, the societal burden due to health problems has shifted from infections (AIDS represents a significant exception) and undernourishment to chronic diseases. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and mental illness are likely to be the key scourges of humanity in the 21st century. Food technology has a role to play in combating these chronic diseases. It will require new and advanced techniques and concepts, because the focus will increasingly be on trace compounds rather than macronutrients. In addition, traditional measures of food wholesomeness based on such aspects as freedom from pathogens, caloric content, protein value, and vitamin content will have to be supplemented with more-sophisticated measures of health maintaining functionality.
Of course, food technology has always been concerned with preventing unwholesome effects of food ingestion. Food microbiology and food processing have been devoted to prevention of the occurrence of pathogens and microbial toxins in foods. Food chemistry and toxicology have been devoted to e elimination of dangers of contaminants of environmental or process-induced contaminants. These efforts will continue, and new advances will promote some current consumer and/or societal demands:
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• Reducing the severity of processing will be made possible by elucidating the impact of processing on food components as well as on microorganisms. Current research in the application of new technologies to processing—such as high-pressure processing, novel applications of electromagnetic techniques, and synergy-based techniques—are in urgent need of being anchored in a knowledge base providing an understanding of their mechanisms of action.
• Novel and reliable sensing techniques capable of rapidly identifying and quantifying microorganisms, contaminants, and reaction products in foods, before, during, and after processing are needed.
• Modifying the composition of foods with a clear focus on their functionality can, for example, help replace additives or naturally occurring components which are deleterious to all or some consumers. The area of food allergens will be of particular interest here, as well as the area of food–drug interactions. As we understand these areas, a better demand will be created for new nonallergenic food products and for food products safe for consumers who must remain on long-term medication. The tasks of material science in this respect may include development of improved separation schemes and of new ingredients through synthesis or biosynthesis.
• Environmental concern will also affect the need for better understanding of food materials. Increasing pressures on global resources will result from increasing population, globalization of trade and commerce, and in particular the likelihood that per capita consumption of energy and raw materials will increase as underprivileged populations seek to improve their material living standards. At the same time, our understanding of the damage to the environment from increased utilization of resources is increasing, and with it a counterpressure to preserve the environment. This means enormous challenges and opportunities for food technology. We need to minimize energy usage, increase utilization of process by-products, and develop entirely new ways of producing and processing foods which are more likely to provide a sustaining environment.
Parenthetically, it is worth stressing that the most likely way in which change will be stimulated is through a combination of economic incentives and regulatory actions. An excellent example is the development of modern aquaculture, which is based on a truly multidisciplinary knowledge base, including physiology, engineering, and biochemistry, and utilizing many inventions. The increasing cost and decreasing availability of fish and crustaceans combined with international and national restrictions on overfishing provided the necessary economic incentive for this new branch of food technology. Many of the components of this industry are due to food science and technology.
The objective of technology-based development of food products and processes is to assure safety, health-promoting qualities, and a high level of acceptability combined with affordability. This is a difficult task. However, science and technology have access now to unprecedented stores of scientific knowledge, and to tools and techniques of enormous versatility and power.
Recent decades have seen an explosion of achievements in science and technology. Among them are a myriad of insights, techniques, and correlations which may be applicable to the solution of the difficult problems remaining in understanding the behavior of food materials and in developing methodology to control this behavior.
Two areas of science and technology have seen explosive growth: biotechnology and information science.
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• Biotechnology. The advances in biotechnology have been nothing less than phenomenal. Within a few decades of the discovery of procedures enabling the modification of genetic material, scientists have cloned mammals, identified genes responsible for susceptibility to specific diseases, and initiated gene therapy. The applications to food material science are inevitable, but are still in their infancy. Here are some examples:
Genetically engineered foods with specific functionality. The most direct way to achieve some food functionalities is to genetically engineer the raw materials which are essentially identical to the final product or are the major ingredient of the final product. One potential area is genetically engineered food materials with improved organoleptic properties, possibly the best-known example of which is the “Flavr-Savr” tomato with improved texture.
Genetically engineered foods with specific composition. Another potential area is that of health-enhancing foods based on raw materials with suitably modified compositions, such as lipids and biologically active phytochemicals. Genetic engineering of raw materials can also lead to development of foods for specific groups of consumers, such as hypoallergenic foods in which specific proteins or peptides are absent. Genetic engineering techniques may also be used to develop raw materials which, together with suitable processing measures, may greatly extend shelf life.
Ingredients. An important route for food materials science is the utilization of biotechnologically produced ingredients. Most of the effort in this area has been devoted to pharmaceuticals, but food ingredients are an important and growing target of biotechnological development. The following are potential food ingredients that can be produced through biotechnology: flavor compounds produced by biosynthesis (using microorganisms or plant cell culture); “natural” preservatives and antioxidants (preservatives produced by microorganisms, i.e., bacteriocins, are an active area of development; natural antioxidants are usually obtained from plants by traditional technology, but future use of biotechnology is likely); ingredients for “medical foods” (at present, most such foods incorporate plant extracts; as our knowledge of the biological activity of specific compounds and classes of compounds increases, it will probably become feasible and cost effective to produce phytochemicals by cell and tissue culture techniques); and ingredients that modify texture and color (e.g., pigments, colloids).
Modifiers, catalysts, and inhibitors. Enzymes have been used for centuries in production of products such as beer, wine, bread, cheese, cured meats, and various soy-based products. Modern biotechnology offers greatly expanded opportunities for enzymes and other catalysts and inhibitors developed by genetic engineering. Such applications utilizing enzymes and anti-freeze proteins are currently either in use or being tested in the food industry.
Sensors. An important application of biotechnology to food material science is the development of components of sensors. Immunoassay-based sensors for key food components have been available for many years, and more recently sensors based on DNA replication and analysis have become feasible for detection of specific microorganisms. It is entirely within reach to control sanitizing, pasteurization, and sterilization of foods on the basis of accurate assessment of actual microbiological risk, to supplement the current practice of statistical risk assessment. These sensors may also play a very important role in assessing and controlling risks due to presence of allergens, such as peanut-derived allergens, and of toxins, such as aflatoxin.
Antibodies. These may become important in separation processes, either in food purification or in isolation of especially valuable compounds. While this application is at present largely theoretical, research has been carried out on aflatoxin removal from food raw materials.
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• Information Technology and Computer science. Developments in computer science and information technology have transformed our offices, factories, laboratories, hospitals, and entertainment facilities, not to mention the machinery of our military and space-exploration endeavors.
Computers have influenced food technology by facilitating industrial operations, including inventory control, process control, and quality control. They have enabled development of new tools with powerful capabilities for studying the physicochemical properties of materials, particularly on microscopic, submicroscopic, and molecular levels. The development of this methodology of analytical and industrial instrumentation was greatly assisted by computer science. In fact, modern instrumentation, including spectroscopy, microscopy, calorimetry, and rheological analysis, is simply inconceivable without computer assistance.
Computers have also been used for data storage and retrieval, communication (including data transmission), and data analysis. They have also been used for molecular modeling, allowing much improved insights into molecular architecture and behavior of molecules. While at present such modeling is difficult for complex systems such as foods, considerable progress has been made.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is advancing rapidly and will have value in solving some of the problems in food science. It offers new ways of handling data which are needed because of enormous increase in data availability and their increasing complexity. The traditional approach based on fitting data to preexisting models needs to be supplemented by methods focusing on data patterns. New ways of evaluating data are useful when there is additional value in accessing combinations of measurements; when complex questions cannot be related to single measurements; and when an information overload exists.
AI techniques in general and data mining in particular can have an enormous impact on food technology. Early applications included the use of expert systems to incorporate operator experience in the decision-making process in thermal processing of foods, in assessing toxicological hazards, and in quality control applications. Some of the specific techniques used in data mining have been applied in sensory and flavor analysis, including the use of the instrumental technique known as the “electronic nose.”
AI is likely to be a productive tool in food science in general, and in food material science in particular, because (1) an enormous existing or potential store of data generated by storage tests, consumer responses, performance evaluations on products in transit, and other data which are usually not readily available to decision makers (with respect to product design, modification, control, etc.) in a form facilitating decisions, and (2) many types of data are not results of single measurements, or even of the same class of measurements (classifications, qualitative judgments, and trends may be part of the data warehouse, as well as quantitative results of physical, chemical, or hedonic measurements).
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Interdisciplinary research and close collaboration between academic institutions will be necessary to advance the objectives of food technology. Major considerations in conducting food research are complexity of food materials, the broad scope of properties controlling the behavior of food raw materials, the variety of methods used in processing foods, and the complex nature of food quality as it affects the consumer. Because of these considerations, it is necessary to combine the expertise of various institutions in academia and to collaborate closely with industry when major research projects of national, regional, or global impact are undertaken.
A recent multi-institutional project in Sweden is an example of such undertakings. The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research has funded a program entitled “Future Technologies for Food Production.” It is the largest of ten programs in Chemistry and Process Technology and has as its objectives the advancement of industrial food technologies. It has three focal areas: technologies for building of food structures, technologies for mild treatment of animal products, and technologies for mild treatment of plant products. The program is being carried out by the University of Lund, Chalmers University, the Swedish Industrial Institute for the Food Sector (SIK), the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Uppsala University, with participation by an Association of Supporting Companies. The program director is Hans Lingnert of SIK.
Key features of the program include close interaction between industry and academic institutes, development of multidisciplinary scientific networks, and technology transfer from industries other than those closely associated with food. The program also encompasses international interactions in research and education.
Also very noteworthy are European multinational, multidisciplinary projects sponsored by the European Commission for Science Research Development. They include research objectives in some very important and fundamental aspects of food science. Also, one of the most important multinational research programs dealing mainly with issues related to enhancement of quality of food by control of molecular mobility is being coordinated by Yrjo Roos of the University of Helsinki.
Novel Food Products and Processes
Futurology is certainly an inexact science, and I do not propose to be an expert in it. Nevertheless it is possible to make some educated guesses as to the nature of the products and processes which will become available throughout the industrialized world in the coming decades. I am reasonably certain that the following developments are on the horizon, since the prototypes of these developments are already here:
• Tailored Food Products. The current market has a variety of products tailored to specific consumer groups. Obvious examples include baby foods, foods for campers and hikers, low-calorie foods, diabetic foods, and many others. In addition, there are so-called “natural foods,” “organic” foods, and specialized food components with alleged curative or prophylactic powers.
The future will see an enormous expansion and increased sophistication of food tailoring. The most important development will be the existence of a scientific basis for the “engineering” of food products for specific groups. In terms of health impact, we will make use of knowledge of metabolic needs and concerns of different population segments. As our knowledge increases, the groups for which this tailoring can be achieved will become narrower. Many examples could be listed: consumers with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, people on specific types of medication which make consumption of some food components dangerous, and people with specific allergies.
As we learn more about the human genome and the genetic basis of some disease risks, developing specific foods to minimize cancer risk or being proactive by interfering with expression of genes promoting cancer may become possible. The advances in biotechnology which will allow us to characterize consumers will also allow us to better characterize the food materials in terms of their health effects on humans. Within the past few months, the first higher plant had its genome elucidated. Tests are being developed to test specific effects of food components in vitro. What seems like science fiction today will be commonplace tomorrow.
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• Tailored Food Processing. Advances in biotechnology, material science, and computer technology will make it possible to utilize sensors and predictive techniques based on firm scientific principles that will result in very highly controlled processing methodology. Currently, most heat-processed foods are likely to be overheated to provide very wide margins of safety which assume the most adverse conditions of contamination, handling, and storage. The new techniques will allow us to target the specific sources of danger in a given type of food product, and indeed in a given batch of that product. Depending on food composition and known contamination, different methods of processing may be combined to provide consumer protection as well as maximum protection of quality. Thermal processes, high pressure techniques, irradiation with rays from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, clean-room technology, and other technologies will be available to achieve these objectives.
• “Smart” Packaging and Storage. Preserving quality and maximizing safety and economy in food distribution will all be improved by incorporating various sensing and interaction devices into packages and storage systems. These will include sensors which will alert distributors and consumers to untoward changes in foods or may even initiate countermeasures to counteract influences which could produce undesirable changes. Devices capable of initiating measures such as controlled release of antioxidants, pH modifiers, or antimicrobial agents may be built into package surfaces. History of each individual product may be capable of being determined by scanning a sensing patch, which could be routinely a part of the checkout scanning used to determine prices of products in supermarkets. Additional information may then be given the consumer, such as the remaining safe storage time.
• Computerized Food Shopping. Computerized food shopping is not new and is available in one form or another in advanced industrialized economies. The exponential growth of availability and power of electronic information transfer systems and the ubiquitous use of the “Web” will make such shopping much more sophisticated and consumer friendly. Obviously, the bottleneck will remain the actual transfer of the food to the consumer, but the modern shipping systems such as DHL, UPS, and FedEx have demonstrated that delivery of items with satisfactory reliability and speed is feasible—at a price.
In addition, the information systems built into the shopping network will allow functions much more complicated than just ordering one’s groceries. It will be possible for a shopper to assemble the required nutritional complement for a given group of consumers based on known requirements of the consumers (who may have special dietary requirements because of medical, ethical, or esthetic concerns) and known properties of the products which will be readily recoverable by computer.
• Smart Pantries, Kitchens, and Cleaning Systems. The computer age has already invaded the kitchen. Current technology allows microwave ovens and other heating systems to be self-programming on the basis of coded instructions on a food package. Much more sophisticated systems will become available, including automatic inventory of refrigerated and frozen products in refrigerators (along with remaining shelf life), and similar systems will be developed for nonrefrigerated pantries. Cleaning and garbage disposal may be built to maximize conservation of water, minimize pollution, and maximize safety.
Mixed Blessings, and the Need for Education
It is evident that technology is at hand to make life easier and healthier for the consumer, at least the affluent consumer. I foresee these trends developing, the technologies becoming available, and both industry and consumers utilizing them and perhaps even becoming addicted to them. However, let me state unequivocally that I know that science and technology are by themselves unable to solve many of the burning issues involving food. In fact, I am afraid that some of these developments will be mixed blessings.
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Among some of the dangers of undesirable side effects, I anticipate that billions of humans in rural areas, and in slums of the sprawling mega-cities, will be unable to benefit from these technological marvels. Their situation may even be aggravated because the global reach of production, processing, distribution, and marketing may make uneconomical the food production and distribution systems which traditionally supported some of these populations. As an example, some of the best acreages may be diverted to production of exportable high-value commodities, rather than relatively cheap local staples. The net flow of money for the given area may then be enhanced, but the people most in need of it will be least likely to share in it.
I also anticipate that technology, no matter how inventive and controllable, is likely to increase the stress on the ecosystem, in particular through increased utilization of energy.
As a scientist and engineer, I am aware of these dangers, but the actions needed to counteract them lie in the realm of economics, political science, and especially ethics. This problem is not unique to food technology—ethical and political issues arise in utilization of all raw materials, in the enormous differences in availability of appropriate health care, and in the enormous differences in availability of personal safety and absence of violence in different parts of the world. Technology is providing us with incredible power, but the wisdom to use it appropriately is unfortunately not one of the built-in control systems.
There is an urgent need to educate consumers as well as the political and regulatory bodies about the scientific facts governing food production, processing, and distribution. Important nontechnical impediments to progress in applying science and technology to food production and distribution include:
• Reluctance of consumers to accept certain features of modern food technology. These include: (a) compositions perceived as not “natural,” including synthetic or even in some extreme cases biosynthetic (fermentation-produced) components, even if they are identical to those present due to biosynthesis by plants; (b) ingredients created or modified by genetic engineering; and (c) food processed by nontraditional energy input, in particular by ionizing radiation.
• Very long lead times required by regulatory procedures when novel ingredients, not previously recognized as safe, are incorporated into foods.
• Relatively low level of public and private investment in food research, especially with respect to long-range research.
These limitations can be overcome only by a consistent, dedicated, and truly well-informed effort to educate the public, the legislative and executive branches of the various government bodies, and the executives and boards of industrial corporations. This effort should convincingly present the public, corporate, and national benefits deriving from basic research in food science. Education of the public is one of the most important tasks of the present generation of food scientists and technologists.
Updated May 2000 from a paper presented at the Jubilee Seminar, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland, September 21, 1999, where the author received an honorary doctorate, and initially published in the seminar proceedings, Bioproducts for the Next Millennium, University of Helsinki, 1999.
by MARCUS KAREL
The author, a Fellow and Professional Member of IFT, is Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139.
Edited by Neil H. Mermelstein,