If there was ever an ultra-mega trend spurring innovations in food science and technology, it’s sustainability. More precisely, next-level food production and processing technology advancements are increasingly driven by the urgent need to produce 60% more food to feed an estimated world population of 9.3 billion by 2050.
According to the World Resources Institute, to do that, new solutions to reduce agriculture’s impact on climate, ecosystems, and water and to improve efficiencies all along the food supply chain will be necessary. As José Graziano Da Silva, former director-general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, once noted, “We have no choice but to embark on a greener revolution.”
Food Technology editors consulted industry market research and food industry scientists and experts to discover what food technology trends have the potential to advance the development of sustainable food processing systems in 2023 and beyond. Here’s how the top three trends shake out.
Most plant-based food categories are experiencing rapid, double-digit growth, according to the Good Food Institute, driven in large part by consumer demand for foods that address health and environmental concerns. In 2020, the top three fastest-growing categories were plant-based eggs, plant-based dairy spreads, dips, sour cream, and sauces, and plant-based meat. GFI reported that among alternative proteins, plant-based milk tallied $2.5 billion in 2020 sales, and plant-based meat had $1.4 billion in 2020 sales, growing a whopping 45% since 2019.
“The biggest food tech trend in 2023 will be higher protein,” says Eyal Afergan, cofounder and CEO, Imagindairy, noting that the trend that started in the sports nutrition world has made its way into the mainstream. “With the global awareness toward healthy nutrition, consumers are looking for higher protein content in more types of products. So, alternative proteins will continue to grow as a major ingredient in new products.”
Arlin Wasserman, founder and managing director of food strategy consultancy Changing Tastes, agrees. “Our love of protein isolates is going to evolve to protein concentrates,” he explains, “and U.S. soy may emerge the winner. The pursuit of lower carbon footprints and less processing will help our profession to realize the isolate process and its relatively large footprint is one that we can skip over in favor of eating crushed and concentrated beans, especially those bred for higher protein content.”
Whether it’s plant-based, mycoprotein, cultured meat and seafood, or edible insects, experts note that there is a pressing need for rapid development of a range of sustainable alt-protein food technologies, including precision and biomass fermentation, 3-D printing, enzymatic and molecular biology methods, and CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing.
Lou Cooperhouse, president and CEO of BlueNalu, a pioneering cellular aquaculture company, says that over the past decade there has been a shift in consumer behavior worldwide that parallels new developments in food technology, which he believes will lead to a total transformation of the global protein supply in the decades ahead. Consumers are increasingly demanding more transparency about the health, environmental, and ethical implications of the food they buy, he says.
“At the same time as we are seeing these consumer shifts, plant-based, fermentation, and cell-cultured technologies have been developed to enable new solutions to supplement our global food supply chain,” Cooperhouse says, noting that BlueNalu’s first commercial product will be cell-cultured bluefin tuna toro that will be marketed to premium foodservice markets worldwide.
Cooperhouse cites a 2019 research paper by Kearney that projects that in 20 years’ time, only 40% of global meat consumption will come from conventional sources, while cell-cultured protein sources will be the fastest growing, and continually increasing market share. He notes that the market is starting to see the transition happening already, as global investments in cell-cultured startup companies were more than three times year-over-year from 2020 to 2021, while investment to plant-based startups declined slightly during that time.
Industry 4.0, or digital transformation, in the food and beverage processing industries has been slower to be incorporated by some sectors over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortages are driving new levels of adoption in manufacturing plants. The four key concepts of digital transformation–data collection and analysis, connectivity, continuous monitoring, and process optimization–offer numerous touchpoints for technology development, most notably through machine and software automation.
According to a recent report by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing, larger consumer packaged goods companies continue to automate and integrate Industry 4.0 solutions at a faster rate than small- and medium-sized operations, but smaller CPGs are investing in smart manufacturing technologies at a steady rate. The report, Automation Timeline: The Drive Toward 4.0 Connectivity in Packaging and Processing, indicates that manufacturers surveyed have been actively expanding both machine and software automation in the past five years and “there remains significant room for continued growth in the next decade.” Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors and devices for more effective measurement, tracking and data collection, and artificial intelligence and machine learning to more effectively analyze data that can be used to streamline and optimize processes are among the digital transformation technologies that CPG manufacturers expect to incorporate at some level in the next few years.
In 2021, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) CEO Champions Group on Accelerating Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID-19 World stated that Industry 4.0 also can support a company’s sustainability initiatives. “Immense opportunity exists for enterprises that can capture the value of data to drive more sustainable solutions,” the group noted in its playbook report, Bridging Digital and Environmental Goals. “For example, it’s estimated that the value unlocked by artificial intelligence in helping design out waste for food, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, could be up to $127 billion a year in 2030.”
The group said that digital transformation systems can reduce environmental impacts by optimizing resource use, reducing waste, and increasing energy efficiency. “The use of data-sharing and tracking platforms provides both visibility and accountability–often in real time–thereby reducing environmental impacts before they are magnified,” the WEF group stated.
Paul Kafer, principal of Anabasis Technical Consulting and former head of engineering for Smithfield Foods, comments that it has been estimated that technology evolution outpaces human evolution by a factor of 1,000. However, he notes that in the near term, companies are stepping up to the challenge and choosing strategies that fit their strategic needs and are within the capabilities of their staff. The most common Industry 4.0 technologies Kafer sees food companies choosing to incorporate into their operations are automation, process integration, and data collection.
“Automation is considered to address the tight labor market and to reduce costs,” Kafer says. “It has accelerated during the pandemic as companies have seen that reducing the number of employees helps mitigate close contact situations and is another driver for investment.”
He adds that the challenge of implementing Industry 4.0 technology in many older facilities is that there is not enough space to retrofit automated solutions and creating additional space adds to the investment. “However, equipment suppliers recognize this challenge and have developed innovative methods such as conveyors that can operate with tighter turns or that feature technology to help make sharper turns and reduce length,” Kafer notes, “or robots that can case pack and palletize with one end-of-arm tool and use of mezzanines or platforms.”
Data collection and process integration are often linked with one another, Kafer adds. Equipment that can communicate from front to back of the process can pass data to help smooth out surges and prevent process upsets. Collecting this data and using analytical tools can help managers assess performance in real time and become part of a predictive maintenance approach to optimization, which will help keep the digital transformation trend top of mind for the foreseeable future.
“This technology is hard to tackle, as it demands certain skill sets, robust training, and constant focus on how the network is operating,” Kafer says. “It is well worth the effort, and facilities that have implemented this feature of Industry 4.0 have reaped the benefits of higher profits.”
At first glance, innovative food safety technologies may not seem directly related to a food company’s sustainability initiatives, but their use can have a positive impact on a processor’s green goals while optimizing food protection systems, says Larry Keener, a certified process authority and president and CEO of International Product Safety Consultants. For example, during the pandemic, necessity mothered advances in the development of effective and safe light-based disinfection technologies, such as ultraviolet light and light-emitting diodes, he says.
“Light-based disinfection technology is a good example of how technology can simultaneously deliver on food safety and reduce environmental impact as the result of manufacturing food,” Keener explains. “UV and LED disinfection treatments require less chemical usage in food processing and environmental sanitation applications and have been shown to reduce water usage.
“The pandemic also exposed the poor air quality in food processing plants and some of these light-based technologies that were integrated with the HVAC systems were shown to effectively eliminate molds and viruses,” Keener continues. “I think these light technologies have a big future in advancing food safety, and I expect these will continue to be developed in the coming year and beyond.”
Low-energy electron beam technology (LEEB) is another food safety intervention that Keener believes will take center stage in the immediate future. LEEB is nonthermal, chemical free, water free, and does not use radioactive substances, Keener says, so it has the positive benefit of inactivating harmful pathogens and viruses without damaging the environment. One company recently received FDA acceptance of its small production floor footprint method for generating low-energy electron beams for treating spices, which Keener believes will make the technology easier to adopt and implement into processing lines.
In terms of food safety, companies are seeking and will continue to seek technologies that allow them to monitor preventive control and quality points in food production processes more quickly, accurately, and continuously, adds Richard Stier, a consulting food scientist based in Sonoma, Calif. Stier notes that while it is up to food, beverage, and ingredient processors to ensure that the foods that they manufacture are safe, wholesome, and adhere to the company’s established quality specifications, he expects that near-term food technology advances at the processing level also will be driven by customer specifications.
“A good example of this is X-ray technology for foreign material detection, which has become faster and cheaper to use,” Stier explains. “There is a lot of interest in finding a greater potential of all materials, whether it’s glass, stones, hard plastics, or bone. Although this technology is still challenged by the size of the objects, one multinational retailer is pushing their suppliers to adopt X-ray technology, so it’s likely that we’ll see more work to improve on these systems.”
Stier also expects that in the near-term, food companies will increasingly adopt robotics or other automated systems that speed up processing and packaging operations and allow them to operate more efficiently, effectively, and with fewer staff.
“I believe we will see scanning technology coming into more operations, as well,” Stier says, noting that Campbell Soup has been doing this for several years through a brite stacking system in its warehouses. “The company adopted double scanning technology, which not only scans bar codes but also day codes that indicate product and day packed to avoid mislabeling of canned foods. If they don’t line up, they stop the line and reevaluate.”
Successfully leveraging the trends in digital transformation, alternative protein, and food safety technologies will require food companies to identify opportunities for optimization within their individual processes and businesses, Keener concludes. “It’s best to decide which emerging technologies make the most sense for your business early on. The key is to know your processes backward and forward, inside and out. That goes a long way toward achieving your performance goals, including sustainable production and processing, and your business goals to gain a competitive advantage.”