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Opinion: The future of food – What’s in store?

What will the food industry look like in ten years’ time? It is a question that is impossible to answer but fascinating to discuss. Niamh Michail (left), head of publishing, and Elizabeth Draper (right), senior content producer, both at Informa, delve into the exciting possibilities. Health-led innovation that leverages evolving nutrition science and transformational biotechnologies will be key to feeding a growing population sustainably and equitably. Advancements in food and nutrition have historically been driven by the pursuit of solutions, whether biodegradable packaging to address the plastic pollution problem, GM crops to tackle poverty, or sugar replacers to respond to the obesity crisis. If every solution starts with a problem, the starting point for predicting the future is identifying the challenges facing the food industry today. Feeding the world The single most monumental challenge is that of feeding a growing global population. According to estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2050, we will need to produce 60% more food to feed a world population of over 9 billion. The complexity of this challenge stems from the need for the food industry to produce more, while protecting the world’s natural resources and reducing the public health burden. That means conceiving products that are healthy and aren’t going to damage the environment. The food industry also faces the challenge of helping to feed the world more equitably by tackling the double burden of malnutrition and obesity. While this is partly a resource allocation issue, formulation and fortification also have a role to play here. To address excessive consumption, the industry will need to improve the nutritional credentials of its products, which will require the ingredient community to develop alternatives to sugar, salt and fats. Reformulation and health-driven product development are nothing new for the food industry, but the nutrition science that informs these activities changes all the time. Food and ingredient manufacturers need to constantly monitor the landscape and take scientific advancements on board.

Nutrition science There is a growing body of science that suggests calorie-free sweeteners can disrupt the microbiome. In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidance that advises against using non-sugar sweeteners for controlling weight. As non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia, sucralose, and aspartame have long been a cornerstone of strategies to reduce the calorie content of food and beverage products, this announcement will have far-reaching implications. As well as boosting innovation in unsweetened and sugar-reduced foods and beverages, it will likely drive the development of new sweetening technologies. Another branch of nutrition science that will frame NPD in the coming years is the growing evidence base that demonstrates the health risks of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). An increasing number of studies – including two large European studies published in the British Medical Journal – have found positive associations between UPFs and health risks such as cardiovascular disease and obesity. This is fuelling calls for policies that promote the consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods over highly processed foods. The other side of the coin is addressing malnutrition by fortifying food products with vitamins and minerals. Here, the main challenges are bioavailability, accessibility and affordability. There is no point in developing healthy products that are at such a premium, the people who need them most can’t afford them; or in fortifying products with vitamins and minerals that degrade before they reach the consumer because of a lack of cold chain transportation. The solutions that the food industry conceives to tackle these high-level challenges will determine how the category evolves in the next decade.

Plant-based, but not as we know it Plant-based foods and ingredients will form a major part of the solution, but the form they take may change. Despite media reports of falling plant-based food sales, the interest is there – consumer awareness has grown to a point where people accept that eating meat every day is not sustainable at a global level providing a strong business case for continued investment in plant-based R&D. Food and ingredient developers need to step up their game to meet the consumer’s sensory expectations, move plant-based foods out of UPF territory and address criticism about affordability. This will involve drawing on emerging biotechnologies such as synthetic biology, precision fermentation, plant molecular farming, and plant cell culturing. These technologies – underpinned by artificial intelligence as a way of drilling through huge amounts of data to identify protein expressions – have transformational potential. It might be that hybrids are the answer to the plant-based food industry’s current problems. If 100% texturised pea protein steaks don’t taste like the real thing, perhaps combining a plant-based scaffold with a cell-cultured meat protein is the way to go. Coming back to the original question, it is safe to say that the future of food will be dominated by hybrids and plant-based concepts, driven by health and sustainability ambitions. The transition away from both sugar and sweeteners will, over time, alter palates and expectations of sweetness, and unprocessed foods conceived from nature through bioscience will take the lead.

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