Why the Food Biz Is Hungry for Tech

Innovations born in the lab now drive a wealth of new products and aim to make what people eat safer, longer-lasting, and healthier

On July 12, more than 20,000 technologists, food scientists, and nutritionists from around the world will converge on Chicago for the Institute for Food Technology's annual Food Expo. At the top of the agenda: Protecting the U.S. food supply from terrorist attack. Experts will present and debate novel processing techniques that use ultraviolet light and ultrasound, ideas for altering the genetic makeup of foods to help prevent inherited diseases, and advances in nano-biotechnology that employ supersensitive sensors to measure both the healthful and harmful bacteria that occur in food or that may be introduced into it.

Fighting terrorism is only the latest technological challenge for the $500 billion food industry. Over the past 30 years, high tech has powered product development, helping to create everything from baked goods with long shelf lives to sugar-free pudding and fantasy flavors such as "cool" raspberry.

The result has been an explosion of choice: In the 1960s, supermarket shoppers had 7,000 products to choose from. Today, they can opt for any of 40,000 baked goods, dairy products, or packaged and prepared foods, according to Charles Santerre, an associate professor at Purdue University and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists.


  Today, food giants rely on technology to develop pest-resistant crops, rout out dangerous bacteria, and develop new, more nutritious foods to appeal to a health-conscious, if increasingly obese, nation. Case in point: On July 1, Kraft (KFT ) announced that it would reformulate many of its flagship products such as Jell-O and Chips Ahoy to improve their nutritional content and to help counter rising obesity. In April, Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo (PEP ), launched its first organic products, Tostitos tortilla chips made with organic blue or yellow corn and a companion salsa.

"Demand for both quality and safety are rising," says Barry Swanson, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Washington State University. "That means the greatest technology investments are yet to come."

Indeed, the hottest trend in food-safety research is the hunt for new techniques that make food safer without the "cooked" taste that often results from tried-and-true purification treatments such as pasteurization. One of the most well-known -- and controversial -- is irradiation, which uses high-energy electron beams to kill bacteria in meat products and insect infestations in fruits and vegetables. Irradiation, which was first tested during World War II, has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use on pork, chicken, and ground beef, and is now sold in more than 5,000 grocery stories nationwide.


  The availability of irradiated meat will only continue to grow: In 2003, irradiation leader Surebeam (SURE ) says it will process 30 million to 40 million pounds of ground beef, up from just 15 million last year. Starting next January, public schools nationwide will be permitted to serve irradiated products at lunch.

The scientific community has warmly embraced irradiation. According to the Center for Disease Control, irradiating half of the 5.9 billion pounds of ground beef, poultry, and pork consumed by Americans annually would prevent 1 million cases of the 76 million annual cases of foodborne illnesses. It would also prevent 400 of the 5,000 annual deaths from such diseases.

Still, consumer groups maintain that irradiation requires further study. For one, high levels of radiation have been shown to introduce new chemicals into foods -- so-called radiolytic products -- which some studies have shown promote cancer. Moreover, contends Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, irradiation masks, and thus encourages, filthy conditions in slaughterhouses, since meat producers see post-production treatment as a silver-bullet alternative to removing the feces, pus, and vomit that often contaminate meat in abattoirs.


  So, researchers are also focusing on several new nonthermal techniques to kill dangerous bacteria. One area of investigation is biosensors, the biological equivalent of the old practice of sending a canary down into a mine with to spot dangerous levels of methane gas: When the canary dies, it's time for the humans to leave.

The goal is to spot normally harmless bacteria cells that behave a certain way in the presence of dangerous toxins. For example, at Clemson University in South Carolina a team of chemists, microbiologists, and food scientists have devised a way to tether luminescent molecules to food pathogens, such as e. coli and salmonella, to make contaminated food glow in the dark. Led by professor Paul Dawson, the team is working to create a "protein key" that would "fit" with another molecule, creating a bio-alarm when key and lock fit. Though promising, biosensors are still years from widespread commercial usage.

Another technique, high-pressure processing, where liquids are put under 150,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, is already being used to reduce contamination in products including guacamole and fresh orange juice. The intense pressure inactivates microbes and other undesirable enzymes by causing their membranes to burst. Because heat isn't involved, the process doesn't affect freshness or flavor, or cause liquids to lose important vitamins and minerals that are destroyed by high-temperature treatments.


  Texas Guacamole maker AvoMex is a pioneer in high-pressure processing. Ten years ago, in an effort to ramp up production, its management began experimenting with technologies that would extend the shelf life of its products because avocados contain low levels of acid and certain enzymes that cause the fruit to discolor when it's exposed to oxygen. High-pressure processing proved just the trick. It has has allowed AvoMex to increase the shelf life of its guacamole, once just 7 to 10 days, to 30 to 40 days. This technique is also being considered for the new raft of popular fresh juices and fruit smoothies, which demand both thorough treatment and fresh flavor.

The demand for healthier, nutritious food is the main driver of another trend in food technology: "functional foods" whose ingredients help tackle health problems. Imagine your favorite chocolate dessert enhanced with vitamins, or tea that promotes weight loss, or even edible vaccines. "The American consumer has embraced dietary supplements. But which would you rather do? Take a pill or eat fresh strawberries?" asks Purdue's Santerre.

Though bioengineered crops and goods are still intensely controversial, food companies are making a big bet on the latter. According to a recent survey by trade magazine Prepared Foods, 59% of food-marketing executives say they're now developing functional foods. Of those not yet in the market, 10% say their companies will be within a few years.


  Many functional foods are already on the market. Most use additives such as cereal enhanced with soy protein, which is said to reduce heart disease, or beverages fortified with antioxidant-rich green tea, which claims to minimize heart disease and perhaps even cancer. Other products capitalize on healthy ingredients that are innate in their products. Hunt's, a division of Conagra Foods (CAG ), plays up the lycopene -- the powerful antioxidant abundant in red tomatoes that may help prevent prostate cancer -- in its ketchup. Welch's is advertising the natural antioxidants that occur in its grape juice.

Over the next two years, according to Prepared Foods, 49% of food companies expect to add antioxidants to packaged foods. Food marketers also predict a growing emphasis on soy protein, calcium, dietary fiber, and omega fatty acids, which may reduce heart disease.

In the labs, researchers are hard at work trying to establish links between these new superingredients and the prevention of disease. After encouraging initial results, Iowa State University researchers embarked last year on a three-year study to determine whether the intake of certain phyto-estrogens found in soy products might be a substitute for controversial hormone-replacement treatments for post-menopausal women.


  At the University of Tennessee, professor Mike Zemel is trying to establish a link between calcium intake and weight loss. And researchers across the country are on a quest for ingredients that can help combat chronic diseases of aging such as Alzheimer's and dementia. Lutein, a beta carotenoid found in leafy green vegetables and marigold flowers, is already popping up in products that cater to an older demographic, such as prepared nutrition shake Ensure and Sunsweet prune juice.

Of course, technology will never be the cure-all for America's sanitation or health problems. Just as tech alone can't make airports safe from box-cutter-wielding terrorists, no technology, no matter how sophisticated, will prevent every outbreak of dangerous bacteria or turn the tide on obesity. In fact, one drawback of advanced food technology is that it tends to reinforce the tendency of people "to migrate toward glitzy solutions, stuff with the Star Wars appeal," says Doug Archer, a professor of food science at the University of Florida and a former deputy food director at the FDA.

He argues that no matter how sophisticated the technology of food becomes, it'll still always be important to apply common sense to preventing bacterial outbreaks, to quickly recall dangerous foods when they're discovered -- and to lead a healthy lifestyle.


  Still, Archer agrees that technology is destined to play an increasingly important role in developing and protecting better tasting, healthier food. "We're at the very beginning of the explosion in food technology," adds Purdue's Santerre. "Over the next 20 years, technology is going to lead to the same transformation in food that the transistor did in electonics -- from ugly radio devices to millions of transistors on a tiny integrated circuit."

And to a world where the difference between what Mother Nature provides and what humans eat may be greater than ever.

By Jane Black in New York

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