C. S. (Sam) Rao

I have been a member of IFT for more than 25 years, and as I contemplate our profession and its contributions to the health and wellness of consumers, I would like to to start a discussion as to whether there should be a change of direction in what and how we do things, for the benefit of consumers as well as our members.

• Food technology’s contributions in food preservation and reduction of foodborne contamination are significant. The technologies we have today stretch from the physical (canning, refrigeration/freezing, aseptic packaging) to the chemical (natural and artificial antimicrobials) and the biological (fermentation).

These technologies, coupled with advances in the medical field, especially the discovery of antibiotics, have reduced and almost eradicated foodborne infectious disease incidence and are partly responsible for extended longevity, especially in the developed countries.

The recent issues with Escherichia coli and other outbreaks are mostly due to aging manufacturing plants, poor utilization of early warning systems, and inadequate attention to food safety management, rather than the lack of technology. In fact, these recent widely publicized events could have been worse were it not for the existing technology, especially for detection of pathogens, and timely recalls.

• In the processing of commodities into food ingredients, we have participated in creating and perfecting refining/fractionation techniques, such as production of white flour from grains, refined/hydrogenated vegetable oils from native fats/oils, and refined sugars from corn or sugarcane.

These refined ingredients, while contributing to the color, taste, and texture that most of the populace consider desirable, have obviously removed the “essential” nutrients and have contributed to nutritional problems. We are now being encouraged by public health and nutrition experts to consume minimally processed commodities, or even their by-products, such as whole grains and bran. But unrefined or minimally processed commodities, in most instances, have undesirable color, taste, and texture.

Another commonly used technology is fortification of foods made from refined ingredients with extracted and/or synthesized components, such as vitamins, minerals, fibers, and, more recently, phytochemicals such as phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids.

The challenge is whether we can process the commodities into food ingredients in such a way as to retain all of the nutritionally desirable components while imparting desirable taste and texture. We have seen initial moves in this direction in the processing of whole-grain fl ours. How about extending this concept to other major ingredients?

• With reference to human nutrition, the basic concepts have been borrowed from animal nutrition. For example, the protein efficiency ratio (PER) is measured in laboratory animals, based on the weight gain in a defined period of time, Naturally, the speed of weight gain is critical in animal agriculture, since the economics of meat and poultry depend on how fast the animals can be “finished” and taken to slaughter.

Classical animal nutrition has no interest in long-term consequences of the diet on the health and wellness, since most animals-for-food are sacrificed early in their life cycle, once they reach desirable size/weight.

However, we are now learning that a significant relationship exists between diet and chronic diseases of the human population (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and perhaps even Alzheimer’s.

The question is, should we feed our children for faster growth rates (supersize them)? Is there a connection between our early-stage nutrition and later-day chronic diseases?

This requires further research, combining the talents of nutritionists and food technologists. A beginning has already been made to push for low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt approaches in designing foods for our kids.

• While we can pat ourselves on the back for some of the good things we have accomplished (color, taste, texture, fortification, packaging for convenience, etc.), we have also contributed to some of the “problems” with our food system that are causing an epidemic of obesity. Should we call the refined fats, sugar, and salt the “opiates” of the 21st century?

There is a tremendous opportunity for the food industry to create “healthy” ingredients and foods with desirable color, taste, texture, and satiety and contribute to the health and wellness of our populace, especially our kids. We need newer and better technologies to accomplish this, going beyond the addition (fortification) and subtraction (e.g., low-fat) techniques, which will continue to play a significant role. We might even call this a functional food revolution.

by C.S. (Sam) Rao, Ph.D., a Professional Member of IFT, is Senior Partner, Svenka Consulting LLC, 4832 S. 167th Ave., Omaha, NE 68135 ([email protected]).