Legumes, insects, new crops… Scientists are challenging future food systems

The Covid-19 pandemic has overhauled consumption patterns, global warming is forcing us to rethink our agricultural practices, the war in Ukraine is disrupting the global supply of raw materials…

The period is marked by a series of events that invite us to rethink current food systems to make them more sustainable, from the production of raw materials to the consumption of food. But the scientific challenges that have to be mastered are manifold.

New agricultural raw materials

In France, new production methods such as organic farming are being used or are being studied, such as agroecology. At the same time, global warming is pushing farmers to plant new crops – for example vines in Brittany – or to opt for more resilient varieties to fight against abiotic stress (drought, extreme temperatures, etc.) and biotic stress (pests, diseases). . …) while limiting the use of pesticides such as common wheat septoria. Even to develop specific crops such as soy for human consumption or peas for livestock.

pea field. Legumes are destined to occupy a new place in tomorrow’s food systems.

These practices, which are new and still evolving, result in variability in raw materials due to variations in growing conditions (climate, soil, etc.), crop management, and selection of animal and plant genetic varieties. This includes in particular the determination of the nutritional profile of these new raw materials, their allergenicity and the development of their connections from field to plate. For example, legumes are a good source of protein, but their levels of methionine, one of the nine essential amino acids, are insufficient.

Adapt industrial processes

Another aspect follows from the first: the processing industry is now largely adapted to the raw materials of conventional agriculture.

In order to convert the new raw materials into food, it will be important to choose the food process and its behavior (e.g. the temperature, the fractionation rate) in such a way that it is at least as robust and can utilize a substance more diverse, variable and heterogeneous. Thus, a suitable combination of the genetic variability of fruits, such as apples, and the cooking conditions (temperature, time, pressure and grinding speed) allows compotes with contrasting textures to be obtained.

The acquisition of data by sensors and the design of mathematical models and simulation models as a decision support tool for the mutual adjustment between process and raw material will be essential to exploit and control the variability of raw materials.

The food turnaround tested during the Covid crisis raises the question of what conditions must be met to improve the sustainability of short circuits, local production or even home processing. Offering local products implies efficient small-scale processes, with the difficulty in determining which scales are relevant. And also to understand the conditions for consumer acceptance of more restricted food choices.

Develop channels for disruptive commodities

Entire sectors have to be invented for insects, algae or legumes, with the introduction of suitable technologies whose benefits and risks have to be weighed up.

Research is being developed to identify and mitigate chemical hazards from environmental pollutants and/or from food processing, formulation and preparation. These include physiological problems such as food allergies and nutritional deficiencies. New food ingredients, such as proteins of plant, microbial or insect origin, require particular vigilance since the studies on these products are recent and often incomplete.

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What are the effects of transformation processes on the appearance, development or disappearance of the risks associated with these ingredients? The challenge here is to determine whether the transformation process is an aggravating factor in the generation of new sources of risk such as the formation of neoformed products or, on the contrary, is a lever to mitigate the hazards.

Better use of agricultural production

The efficiency of food systems is severely affected by losses, ie the involuntarily withdrawn raw materials for human nutrition, from production to processing, including transport and storage.

However, this definition leaves many questions unanswered: what about inedible parts (stones, bones, etc.), by-products of processing (bran, almonds, pomace, etc.)?

A much-studied strategy consists of using these by-products in a cascading recycling process in order to dispose of a larger part of the starting material. Current research focuses on the properties and functions of these animal or plant by-products, as well as on the extraction processes and the routes of utilisation.

In France, food losses and waste represent 10 million tonnes of products per year, with an estimated commercial value of 16 billion euros.

Reduce waste and its energy costs

Because food is at the stage of its sale and consumption, wastage is a loss of both food and everything that went into it (energy, water, labor, etc.) to get it to the consumer.

There are several ways to limit it:

  • Stabilization process for perishable foods such as milk, eggs, meat, fruit and vegetables. For example, the development of fermented products (yoghurt, cheese), food powders (powdered milk), and heat-stabilized foods (UHT milk) makes preservation easier. This increases convenience for retailers and consumers compared to first feed.
  • Compliance with the cold chain during processing, sale and at the consumer is also essential. Research is being conducted to develop more efficient refrigeration systems, thereby reducing food waste and associated energy costs.
  • Packaging is in full (r)evolution, particularly due to the consideration of the hazards associated with plastics throughout the food chain, such as: B. the production of nanoplastics, plastic particles that are smaller than a micrometer and whose harmfulness is increasingly being questioned. Particularly promising are recyclable or reusable bio-based materials with the different functionalities required for fresh produce packaging.

meet consumer expectations

When designing other foods, the perspectives of consumers who demand appetizing, safe and healthy products must also be taken into account. It is the task of science to identify the determinants of the sensory qualities of foods, especially those made from new raw materials, and to question consumer perception of them.

Knowledge of the physico-chemical mechanisms responsible for the texturing and stability of foods also serves to strengthen their hygienic and nutritional quality, as well as their shelf life, for example by reducing the level of ingredients that are harmful to health, such as salt or animal proteins ​be replaced by plant-based ones.

In order to respond to the emerging concept of sustainable food and align it with health needs, it is essential to better understand what happens to food in the digestive tract. From the mouth to the large intestine, digestive models are useful to develop new products capable of meeting specific nutritional needs, especially at different stages of life.

Accelerating the production of scientific knowledge and technology will support the sustainable development of food that will satisfy everyone for years to come.

Catherine FoxDeputy Head of the Food, Bioproducts and Waste Department of TRANSFORM, Director of Carnot Qualiment, inrae and Rachel Bouroufood scientist, inrae

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