If there is a partnership that has accompanied humans since the beginning of time, it has to be food and health. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, the saying goes, as well as thousands of other references that show the importance of these two concepts in popular culture. The foundations of such relationship are however changing at the same pace as our societies are changing. In our grandparents’ time there was usually a lack of food and an excess of time; nowadays, time is very limited and there is an oversupply of food in terms of quantity and variety. Paradoxically, it is also now that we know the least about raw materials and consumption of processed foods is the highest.
It is perhaps for this reason that we are starting to be concerned about what we eat and to appreciate natural ingredients (or, even better, organic ingredients) and, why not, to discover and rediscover new foods. We are starting to be more demanding regarding quality and respect for the environment.
Science and technology: the greatest allies of health and food
Science and technology make another partnership which has erupted in the current food and health scenario. For example, thanks to an app we can have access to reference data on our body (we already mentioned this in an earlier article on digital transformation and health) and have, as a consequence, greater control over what’s happening, which allows us to get professional help more quickly if we detect that something is not working properly.
Also thanks to technology, the popular Thermomix® food processor offers an app that not only creates a weekly agenda where recipe planning (and therefore a diet) can be scheduled, but also includes a smart feature to create a shopping list so that users never forget the ingredients they need.
Governments are also beginning to join in and are, along with their regulator role, starting to make use of technology to “educate” and improve the health of their populations. An interesting case is the Peruvian Ministry of Health (MINSA), which back in 2015 launched an app aimed at reducing obesity by providing recommendations and allowing users to create a menu based on typical Peruvian dishes.
Science at the core of future foods
It is clear that science is at the core of future foods. At a culinary level, science has allowed us to learn, among many other things, why a sauce emulsifies or why a fish loses its juiciness, thanks to Nutrigenomics for example. We can also consider our own genetic variability and customize our diet, adapting traditional recommendations in nutritional studies to each type of person and their specificities.
Besides Nutrigenomics, which allows us to know what our genes predispose us to and how we are affected by food, our body is full of micro-organisms with a highly significant impact on what we are, which is in turn influenced by what we eat.
Our digestive tract has an extensive neuronal network consisting of approximately 100 million neurons (what some have called the second brain, even if it is not), which may seem a lot. But they are not that many, considering that for each neuron in our tract there are 850 in our brain!
We know that the enteric nervous system, where the digestive system neurons are assigned to (within the peripheral system), has nothing to do with the central system; both systems are very different. Microbiotic research (on microorganisms in the intestine, which can weigh up to a kilo) has found that intestinal bacteria have a direct effect on behavior and mood and that what we eat is therefore an essential element to our development. This is explained in this article from the Scientific Culture Journal of the University of the Basque country.
It is clear that further research is needed in order to identify all factors that connect health and nutrition.
A worrying fact
It is estimated that more than 9,000,000 people will embrace Western diets by 2030. This would a priori be positive if it allowed to put an end to malnutrition in many parts of the world, but it is not so good for several reasons.
On the one hand, not all Western diets are good. Mediterranean diet is good, but in general Western diets are increasingly characterised by a high consumption of red meat, refined sugar and saturated fat and a low fiber intake, coupled with an urban lifestyle with little exercise. In addition, these diets are often associated to “fast foods”. Eating this type of food, and eating it fast and in a lonely environment is causing additional damage: the impoverishment of our language. According to Professor Eudald Carbonell, Co-Director of the Atapuerca project, when we share food we develop language and make it more complex.
On the other hand, the increase in demand will generate an overexploitation of natural resources, which will have a negative impact on the environment. These forecasts are already making us find alternative foods such as algae, insects, captive bred fish (a specialized CSIC Research Centre is close to our Castellón headquarters) and even manufacture synthetic meat (some call it ‘clean meat’) from stem cells in a laboratory, as Professor Mark Post is already doing in the Netherlands. By doing this, “cultured meat could be produced with up to 96% less GHG emissions, 45% less energy, 99% less land use and 96% less water use than conventional meat”, as Oxford University has published.
It is imperative to change consumption patterns and management policies.
Clusters that bring together industry and food research in the 21st century
On the above grounds, the so-called triple helix (administration-universities-companies) becomes more necessary and important than ever. Through the so-called clusters or sectoral associations, this triple helix plays a transformative role and allows, among other things, to achieve the objectives of the Horizon 2020 program of the European Union based on three inter-related priorities:
- Smart growth (development of a knowledge and innovation-based economy).
- Sustainable growth (promotion of an economy that makes more efficient use of resources, and is more green and competitive).
- Integrating growth (development of an economy with a high level of employment and social and territorial cohesion).
An example of an initiative under this program is ASSET, which bring together European companies from Germany, Estonia, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. This initiative studies the use of individual purchasing decisions as a means to promote sustainable products and at the same time as generators of communities that serve as the citizens’ critical voice or as collective awareness against certain products or governmental decisions.
Two Spanish companies participate in this project: Alimerka, an Asturian group with more than 173 supermarkets in Asturias, Castilla y León and Galicia, with a firm commitment to RDI, and AINIA, a technological centre in Paterna (Valencia) with more than 700 partner companies and 1,300 clients.
They are clear examples of what we have tried to highlight throughout this article: that talking about food and health is talking about science and technology. In the 21st century what matters are raw materials and their production, all applicable legislation, the extractive processes, their encapsulation and packaging, industrial production hygiene, integrated value chains and the safety of hyper connected and monitored consumers.
After all, it might be true that “food produce is not only consumed at the table, but also on screens”.