Food for Thought, and Thoughts on the Food of the Future

Printed meat, alternative protein sources, food customization, and innovative processing methods: this is how the food world will look in the coming years according to the experts who participated in the European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST) International Conference, hosted by the Technion

The European Federation of Food Science and Technology, EFFoST, has wrapped up its 34th annual conference on the theme “Bridging High-tech, Food-tech and Health: Consumer-oriented Innovations.” The conference, held online for the first time, took place on November 10-12, 2020, with the participation of over 500 researchers, industry people, and students. It was hosted by researchers from the Technion’s Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering. This was also the first time the major international event, which has taken place yearly since 1986, was hosted by researchers from institutions outside of Europe. The EFFoST2020 Conference was organized by Technion researchers Associate Professor Uri Lesmes (conference chair), Professor Ester Segal, Dr. Maya Davidovich-Pinhas, and Dr. Avi Shpigelman with Dr. Zvika Hayouka of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and accompanied by an experienced scientific committee comprised of world-class Israeli and international researchers.

“As food scientists, we have a commitment to humanity and a responsibility to drive dramatic moves that are needed to advance the world of food in normal times, and even more so during the current crisis,” said Prof. Lesmes. “The COVID-19 crisis came at a time when humanity is increasingly aware of the economic, environmental, and health implications of the food sector – an industry that is leading to widespread carbon emissions, significant environmental damage, and affecting human health and well-being. This is the background that has spurred efforts of creative solutions that include the manufacture of algal- and insect-based protein, cultivated meat, and a rise in the use of plant-based food sources. In Israel, all of this is augmented by the rapid development of the Israeli food-tech ecosystem into a “food-tech nation” that places Israel at the forefront of research and development in this domain.”

The conference opened with a unique day of live online broadcasts that included lectures, scientific discussions, and the introduction of Israeli startups. “These are strange times,” said EFFoST President Prof. Olga Martin Belloso, “but we are treating them as a pilot, as an opportunity to explore new ways of teaching and research and to learn how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. The pandemic has been accompanied by a great deal of distress and hardship, but for the world of science it has also presented opportunities, inviting creativity, innovation, and community collaboration – elements that are highly essential to the continued development of the food sector.”

Artificial intelligence, alternative proteins, and cultivated meat products

Associate Professor Uri Lesmes at the conference.

The opening speeches were followed by lectures by the conference’s invited speakers. Professor David Raubenheimer of the University of Sydney (Australia), talked about human and animal eating behaviors highlighting the importance of protein in a balanced diet. Professor Indrawati Oey of the University of Otago (New Zealand), talked about nonthermal food processing. According to Prof. Oey, “Nonthermal food processing has many advantages, including the preservation of nutritional values, reduced energy consumption, and a reduction in waste. The problem is that companies are daunted by the prospect of entering this new sphere, since it requires a huge investment, which they perceive as risky. Indeed, we must consider the various implications, including side effects. That said, I am in no doubt that as awareness of the advantages of nonthermal processing grows, more and more companies will enter the business. Those of us in the academic world have a very important role in bridging the gap between theory and implementation, and in furthering innovative technologies aimed at implementation in the food industry.” Professor Alexander Mathys of ETH-Zurich (Switzerland) further elaborated on the use of technology and life cycle assessments to promote and optimize the use of novel and more sustainable protein sources like algae and insects. 

Professor Alejandro Marangoni of the University of Guelph, Canada, presented methods for the crystallization of fats to create natural butter and fat substitutes. Professor Julian McClements of the University of Massachusetts spoke about understanding digestive processes in order to create personalized food, for example, controlling the digestion of fats and proteins while efficiently delivering vitamins and antioxidants. Professor Christoph Hartmann of Nestle Switzerland presented the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in food developments for the customization of taste and texture, taking raw materials and consumer preferences into account. Dr. Liz Specht of The Good Food Institute concluded the day by discussing the opportunities for alternative protein sources to advance the sustainability of the food sector, and for the creation of future products such as cultivated meat products that will mitigate the environmental damage caused by the food industry.

Prof. Ester Segal of the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion spoke about the innovative technology she developed – active, antimicrobial food packaging, which reduces the need for preservatives, extends the shelf life of food products, and prevents harm to health as a result of the consumption of spoiled food. The development includes porous sensors and oils that prevent a buildup of germs and other contaminants on food. The technology is already in commercial production and is contributing to the health of the population, in addition to the economic and environmental contribution of reduced food waste achieved through the protection of foods against spoilage. 

According to estimates, about one-third of all food produced in Israel is thrown out, representing millions of tons of food products, and world figures are similar. Prof. Segal’s technology was developed and commercialized by NanoPack, a consortium inaugurated in January 2017 and led by Prof. Segal. The consortium is comprised of 18 leading research institutes and industrial companies from Belgium, Austria, Norway, Spain, Israel, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, France, Germany, and Holland. The EU supported the consortium for three years, addressing the scientific, technological, economic, safety, and regulatory challenges. NanoPack established pilot production lines in an industrial environment, which tested all phases of the development and production of the packaging.

On the second and third days of the conference parallel sessions were held, featuring more than 100 talks, including lectures by faculty members and leading students from the Technion, as well as live virtual meetings and discussions with the speakers in which a broad spectrum of topics were discussed. These included the use of ‘omic’ technologies and AI to understand the composition of food, its digestion, advanced food processing technologies, and personalized food engineering.

At the forefront of technology: leading Israeli startups

To present a few of the innovations in the Israeli foodtech arena, the conference hosted three Israeli startups:

  • Redefine Meat, winner of the 2018 EIT Food Accelerator Network program led by the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion with the Stauss group. The company developed a 3D meat printing technology and prints plant-based meat and meat substitutes;
  • Amai Proteins, which uses AI to develop innovative sweeteners based on protein engineering;
  • Solutum, which develops biodegradable plastic. In her talk, Solutum founder Sharon Barak explained that, “Each year, plastic weighing 400 million tons is manufactured, and about half of that plastic is used for disposable products. One of the problems is that plastic doesn’t just disappear – all the plastic that has been manufactured since it was invented is still out there. This is where we come into the picture with our development – biodegradable plastic. And not only is it biodegradable, but it dissolves at the time we defined in advance. We believe that this development will lead to a dramatic change and will put a stop to the damage to the environment.”

In his closing remarks, Prof. Uri Lesmes said, “Population growth, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing awareness of human health and environmental quality have created many challenges for the food industry, and it is only through collaboration between industry and academia that we will be able to craft innovative, creative science- and technology-based solutions. This is precisely the goal of the conference – to share scientific and technological knowledge and forge partnerships that will enhance the food sector’s ability to deliver solutions that are healthy, tasty, and diverse, in alignment with environmental awareness, the complexity of the food chain, and human diversity. I have no doubt that the EFFoST2020 Conference will lead to a better understanding of the challenges we face, and to the use of 21st century science and technology to craft creative solutions that will promote diversity in the food world, the availability of products, their alignment with different consumer preferences and their impact on the way we live, our health and the environment. The Technion is honored to have been a pioneer in organizing the conference in these challenging times, and to be a contributor to the advancement of scientific activity with a purpose.”