How Israel became a leading force in food tech
Innovations in the food world are shaking up the industry and bringing amazing things to your dinner plate.
There's a food storage cocoon that combats food waste in developing countries. A hamburger grown in a lab from plants. An ingredient used to 3D-print food. A sweetener that tricks your tastebuds.
The future of food is making its way into your kitchen. Many of these innovations are a solution to a shared concern, whether it's diabetes or food waste. And they're all being brought to you primarily by a bevy of forward-thinking entrepreneurs in Israel.
"Half of [the world] is hungry and the other half is obese," Amir Zaidman, vice president of a food-tech incubator based in Israel, told From The Grapevine. "These guys over here don't have enough food and these guys over here have the wrong kind of food."
Zaidman, for his part, wants to help solve the food industry's problems with supply, waste, environmental damage, shelf life and packaging. He does this by zeroing in on potential technological solutions, and then nurturing them along.
Because, let's face it: We humans are a hungry bunch. We love to eat, and we prefer to do so quickly, with as little effort, time and energy as possible. In 2017, Hebrew University in Israel unveiled a concept for using a 3D printer to create, design and print a meal. The concept, though several years away from being implemented, already has a basic ingredient: nano-cellulose, a natural, edible fiber that could be altered to specific textures and bound to other substances like proteins, carbohydrates and fats to create real, fully cooked and quite delicious meals.
With the nano-cellulose as the base, a specialized 3D printer could do the job of baking, frying or grilling the meal based on the user's predefined specifications. The result, Daniely said, "is a tailored meal with special textures, enabling delivery of nutritional, tasty, low-calorie cooked meals for a unique gastronomical experience."
And for the folks at Hebrew University, this technology is more than a high-tech gimmick. It could also solve real-world food and dietary issues that millions of people struggle with. "This has the potential to address a variety of challenges facing the field of nutrition, from the demand for personalized food for people with diseases such as celiac or diabetes, personal nutritional habits such as vegetarians, to addressing the problem of lack of food in developing countries," Daniely said.
In the world of food tech, it's not just about how we make our food, but what's in it, that scientists and industry leaders are trying to optimize. Which brings us to the world's most infamous love-hate relationship: sugar. It's become increasingly villainized, and for good reason: it's a major contributor to the obesity epidemic and responsible for a spike in diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes. In large quantities, sugar can wreak havoc on the human body – blamed for everything from cancer to heart disease to tooth decay.
Artificial sweeteners provide an alternative, but an ever-expanding body of data calls their safety into question. So what's a sugar-loving-but-also-health-and-eco-conscious consumer to do? Enter Israel-based DouxMatok, which has developed, successfully tested and is currently optimizing technologies to make sugars with enhanced sweetness, enabling the use of considerably less sugar in a variety of food products and beverages while retaining the “full sugar experience."
"One of the hottest subjects there is in terms of needing to achieve a reduction, for obvious reasons, is sugar," Eran Baniel, co-founder and CEO of DouxMatok, told From The Grapevine.
So Baniel and his team created a sugar that makes the mind think it's consuming more of the sweet stuff than it actually is, thereby reducing the amount of sugar needed. This is done by coating fibers in the food with sugar or polyol molecules, and then “transporting” those clusters of sugar molecules and unloading them on the sweet taste receptors.
The effectiveness of the enhancement varies between 30% and 100%, depending on the application (beverages, candies, dairy foods, baked products, dressings and so forth), Baniel said.
And according to nutritionists, if the goal is consuming less sugar, then the pursuit is more than worthwhile.
"Other than Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, sugar is also an empty calorie that is easily stored as fat," said Geoff Norris, an Atlanta-based nutritionist. "This is increasingly noticeable in our youth today. So cutting back on the consumption of sugar is beneficial in many different ways."
Food tech's reach is constantly stretching and evolving to meet a growing need, and it certainly doesn't end in the developing world. Combating food waste is a global problem, but it's especially stinging when you consider that in third-world countries, much of the food produced on farms is lost before it even leaves the field due to spoilage.
Thirty-five years ago, Larry Simon, founder of U.S.-based GrainPro, and Shlomo Navarro, world-renowned agriculture scientist from Israel, invented the GrainPro Cocoon, a waste-reducing storage technique for maize, beans, rice, seeds, cacao, coffee and peanuts. Now, the Cocoons are being distributed to the world's poorest regions, keeping small mammals, bacteria, fungus and insects from causing damage. Even when insect eggs or fungal spores are on food in storage, the Cocoon doesn’t allow anything to breathe and grow – saving up to 24% of all harvested dried goods from spoiling.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture organization said the Cocoons have “improved rice storage to cut losses of that staple grain by 15%" in 107 countries around the world.
Philippe Villers, GrainPro's current president, says the company's success in Africa is evident in the numbers. “Where crop losses exceed 25%, we can reduce this to less than 1% per year," he said.
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