Food innovation for a sustainable future

It is becoming increasingly more evident that meat overconsumption is problematic due to various factors and there are direct consequences to the patterns of meat consumption in excess. I met with Ph.D. student Krishnachandra Sharma Hidangmayum, at University of Copenhagen Department of Food Science, to learn about his insights in the subject and the work he has done to advance sustainable solutions in food innovation.

Environment

According to FAO assessment from 2013, the livestock sector’s emissions alone could send temperatures above the 2 degrees Celsius rise if demand-supply trajectory stays unchanging. This temperature increase is considered the verge above which climate change will become dangerously destabilizing.

Food security

According to FAO, enough grain is produced to feed the world’s population currently and well into the foreseeable future. Yet, due to the standard practices in Western countries, the grains are fed to meat animals instead of feeding people, which is an inefficient way of producing calories and a threat to global food security.

Considering the present state of agriculture as long as there are 70 billion meat animals consuming grain, hunger, global malnutrition, or environmental issues shouldn’t be blamed on overpopulation.

Meat overconsumption stems from a complex variety of factors that impacts our tendencies to shape our diets in a certain way. Cultural, social, and personal values play a significant role. In western cultures, which consequently have the most considerable prevalence of meat overconsumption, meat has had a prestigious status. It demonstrates the power of culture over nature and has been justified as a means to fulfil our instincts and needs. There are also certain barriers, such as opportunity, capability, and personal motivation, that need to be factored in when attempting to understand the intricacies of dietary preference.  (Crowther, G. 2013. Eating culture: an anthropological guide to food, 4-10)

Integrated transition: increasing the appeal of plant-based foods

In order to tackle the concerns mentioned above, it becomes clear that a gradual transition to more plant-based food systems needs to take place, and fewer animal origin products should end up on the dinner tables around the globe. To make this transition conceivable, it is crucial to provide palatable and accessible plant-based alternatives for animal products.

One researcher working on these solutions is Krishnachandra Sharma Hidangmayum (goes simply by Krishna), from the Northeast Indian state of Manipur. He is currently a Ph.D. student at University of Copenhagen, employed at the Department of Food Science and is working on meeting the positive taste expectations for plant-based foods.

Krishna has an extensive background in the field of food science and technology. He began his academic journey in India with a BSc in Agricultural Engineering and MSc in Food Process Engineering. Afterward, he spent three years working for Nestlé R&D Centre in India. While working for Nestlé, Krishna developed a desire to learn the advances in food science in a European environment. He received a study scholarship for an Erasmus+ program, which brought him to Europe to pursue his second master’s degree in Food Science Technology and Business. After the completion, he applied for a Ph.D. opportunity and was selected in the FOODENGINE project as one of the Early Stage Researchers (ESRs).

I met Krishna at his workplace in the Department of Food Science to find out more about him and his compelling research.

Could you tell me about FOODENGINE? Who is involved, what is the framework of this project?”

“FOODENGINE is a collaborative European project between universities and industries. The universities involved are KU Leuven in Belgium, University of Copenhagen, INRAE, which is based in France. The food companies involved are Unilever (NL), Döhler (DE), Cargill (BE), GNT (DE), Greenyard prepared (BE), and a market and consumer research company Haystack (BE). So, like I said, it’s a Europe wide collaboration.” Krishna explains.

He describes the project framework: “The main aim is towards fruits, vegetables, and legumes – so plant-based foods form a major part of the project; the goal is to develop sustainable solutions in terms of food. We don’t realize it, but 24% of the total global emissions are coming from the food sector, either from agricultural farms or other land use. Still, this 24% is much more than what we see in trucks and cars and airplanes combined, they come to about 14%, which is why it is really important to reduce the carbon footprint from the food sector urgently and globally.”

The project receives its funding from the Horizon 2020 (Grant Agreement No 765415) program, which is the most extensive EU Research and Innovation program. The goal of the program is the transformation of fruits, vegetables and legumes (FVL) into high quality, sustainable, multi-functional ingredients and foods appealing to consumer preference, acceptance and need (PAN) profiles.

FOODENGINE utilizes an enginomics approach to food science. “To put it very simply – let’s say you have an engineering part – chemical or mechanical, and then there’s also a biological part like genomics. Most of the biological sciences tend to end in “omics” so if we combine this engineering perspective into the biological aspect, we collectively call it enginomics. FOODENGINE is basically an enginomics approach to what we know as food today. We explore its engineering properties through instrumental measurements, biological properties, as well as the sensory part where consumers taste the food products and give their feedback. Then we put it all together as a bigger frame to come up with a sustainable solution in the end.” Krishna elaborates.

Could you tell me a little more about the specific part that you’re involved in, with the project?”

“My part is mainly focused on linking the instrumental measurements that we can measure in the lab and consumer acceptance.”

He further explains his choice of the tomato soup in his research: “We had to choose a product which is agreeable with my industrial partner and also something that fits into the framework of my Ph.D. project. We chose tomato soup because most companies in the soup business have tomato soup in their portfolio, and it is quite a pure product in the sense that there’s not a lot mixed into it. Therefore, we decided to develop a vegan tomato soup and try to measure its properties instrumentally and find out its taste, or sensorial properties through a trained taste panel, and in the end, we will try out with the consumers. The ultimate objective will be to model the interactions of the instrumental data and sensory and consumer data to find the really important parameters in making choices.”

When asked about the methods used in his research, Krishna replies:

“Some of the methods that I use are very well established, like in the case of the pH, but some of the spectroscopic methods are still novel. However, these methods provide a non-invasive way to measure certain elements – Maillard reaction for example. There has been a lot of research coming up, especially with the development of very complex and advanced computers, so now there has been a lot of interest in these methods. Also, something that is connected with the taste part – I am using HPLC, which is High-Performance Liquid Chromatography. It basically can quantify a basic taste, which we know as umami – the very nice mouthfeel you get from a chicken broth.” Krishna says.

So, what has spurred the need for the project?”

“The need for this project, if you look at it in a broader sense, is climate action. We need to do something for the planet; there is no planet B. We need to do something that can involve the consumers because it is tough as regular people to change our habits. Some are used to diets that contain a lot of meat, much more than the body requires. The idea is not to eliminate meat from the diets altogether, it is about substituting a little portion of it. Instead of a plate consisting of half portion meat, maybe start with one-third portion. Such a small reduction could go a long way to reduce the impact on the climate.”

What would you say will happen next in the process of discovery?

“The next step, ideally, would be to implement these ideas that we are working with, in collaboration with the food industry, who are the manufacturers of the food. We would very much like the food industry to pick up knowledge generated from this research and apply it to their production, sourcing as well as farming. That way, starting from the EU, we can introduce more sustainable and consumer accepted food products that end up on the shelves of the supermarkets.” Krishna explains.

When asked about his favourite aspect of the research, Krishna tells me: “This kind of work has been really exciting for me, because you see, now I talk a lot about sustainability and climate change and increasing plant-based foods in our diet. But until about 1,5 years ago I didn’t realize that it is a huge issue. Since I started to work in this field, this is something that we must understand and act. It’s so inspiring to communicate that we need to do more for our planet and make little changes to our habits to benefit the future generations.”

He continues to explain the links between the UN sustainable development goals and his work: “This also conforms to the UN SDG’s. Specifically, the project addresses number 13- climate action. It also focusses on number 12 – responsible consumption and production. There’s also a focus on 17 – partnerships, because we have partners from different areas around Europe, including food industries and universities collaborating as one in this project. The project is also related to goal number 2 – zero hunger, because inexpensive, sustainable solutions could help reduce hunger in parts of the world without impacting the climate.”

What are your plans after completion of your Ph.D.?

At the moment, I feel like I need to learn a lot more from Denmark as a culture, so I’m planning to stay for some time. I would also like to go back to my home country at some point in time, but I do not know when or even if I really will. I think 3 years is still too little to learn from the society here. The area that I work in could also be more relevant here in the Danish environment because of the kind of support you get and the understanding among the consumers. So, I am interested in having a career in DK, but at the right time, I would like to go back to my home country so that I could share my knowledge.”

Do you expect the findings to have an impact in your home country?

“Yes, I think so, because, regarding the knowledge on sustainability, DK is quite far ahead compared to India, but I think this knowledge that we are generating here will be helpful from an Indian perspective in the long run. I talk to my parents back home frequently. The awareness of sustainability and climate change at the societal and governmental levels is minimal at the moment. So, I think this knowledge can be implemented in my own country when the need arises.” Krishna concludes.

A little goes a long way

Transitioning into a full-fledged plant-based diet can be unattainable and undesirable for many. However, estimates show that a 25% reduction in global consumption of animal products worldwide would yield a 12.5% reduction in global anthropogenic emissions. The reduction of animal products is a lot more feasible than full elimination, and for many, this is a make or break aspect when attempting to implement lifestyle changes.

Research like Krishna’s is crucial because it provides alternatives and increases the appeal of plant-based foods for the masses, as well as individuals who are not at all inclined to change their dietary habits.

It is essential to enable individual choices and preferences without compromising nutritional adequacy and enjoyable sensory attributes. The increasing availability of plant-based substitutes for animal products is empowering the consumers to make a conscious decision about choosing a more sustainable alternative without having to make any sacrifices concerning their daily meals.

Samanta Miodle is a DDRN university intern and a Bachelor student of Global Nutrition and Health, University College Copenhagen