Today’s food industry is really a marvel of modern times. Food is more plentiful now than at any other period throughout history, and the nutritional values of various foods have increased dramatically. As a society, we can have almost any food item we want regardless of whether that food is in season or out of season, perishable or nonperishable, grown locally, in other parts of our country or imported from countries around the world. Our food supply is diverse, nutritious, global and, for the most part, safe. The low-cost, convenient food selections that feed many of the 7 billion people today are due largely to the technological advancements of food science.
Food science and technology have influenced every stage of the food supply chain, yet the food industry faces a critical juncture. At one end, we are experiencing a time when food is more abundant than ever. Tremendous advances have been made with respect to food availability—technological developments have improved production practices, minimized crop damage, and increased yields while traditional and novel food preservation techniques have increased the shelf life of foods. At the other end, however, not everyone around the world has immediate access to food, and frequent media stories chronicling contaminated food items remind us of the food system’s shortcomings. More notably, by the year 2050, approximately 9 billion people will inhabit the planet, which is a sizeable increase from the 7 billion people we feed today. We cannot afford complacency. More innovation needs to occur, and perhaps that innovation lies in uncharted applications of food science and technology. In my recent travel to Bogota, Colombia, where I represented IFT at the Latin American and Caribbean Association of Food Science and Technology Congress, several speakers addressed innovations in food processing technologies, food innovations and the impact on farming and rural life, and innovations in functional foods and also in food-contact materials. A real need exists for global innovation in food science and technology.
Unfortunately, many consumers associate our profession closely with processed foods—a term that has gained an increasingly negative connotation. They cite processed food as the cause of foodborne illnesses, obesity, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. While food may be partly responsible for these conditions, we must remember that the most important aspect of today’s food supply is that it allows individual choices, thereby emphasizing personal responsibility. The IFT white paper “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology” addresses this issue and discusses the positive aspects of food science and technology, which far outweigh many consumers’ misguided perceptions.
The paper presents a concise, understandable definition of food processing, stressing that the main purpose of processing food is to preserve it. Most food losses occur between harvest and consumption as a result of microbial spoilage and rodent and insect infestations. The authors wisely state that increasing and conserving the supply of raw food is not enough: “[I]t must be conserved against further loss by processing and be packaged, distributed to where it is needed, and guaranteed in its safety.” Therein lies the purpose of food science and technology: to preserve food in a way that ensures its safety, quality, and availability. Drying, canning, refrigeration and freezing, pasteurization, and nutrient fortification are all prominent methods of food processing made possible by food science and technology.
Nearly half of the food produced in developing countries goes to waste because of improper handling, processing, and packaging. In some regions of the world, hunger and malnutrition are major concerns. The application of food science and technology to agricultural practices, processing, packaging, and storage in developing areas of the world would indisputably lower the occurrence of poor nutrient intake, food contamination, and food insecurity. Conservation of energy and natural resources is also an issue.
Emerging technologies and processes hold promise for future delivery of safe, nutritious food with minimal impact on the environment. The report includes several technologies and processes with sound reasons for their effectiveness. I therefore encourage all IFT members to read the IFT white paper and share it with colleagues and critics. By the report’s end, all should be inspired to further explore innovative applications of food science and technology to ensure a bright future for the food industry.
by Robert B. Gravani,
IFT President, 2010–2011
Professor of Food Science, Cornell University,