Archive for the ‘Food science’ Category

Where’s the lab beef produced in a gadget at home? On the back-burner

Promises of lab meat were overly optimistic, Discovery magazine reports (HERE).

It has revisited an article it published in 2006, when biologist Vladimir Mironov dreamed of growing lab meat in a coffee-maker-like device that could, overnight, turn a few animal muscle stem cells into a nice chunk of meat.

The muscle cells would be harmlessly extracted from an animal and – with the right nutrients and environment – would multiply just as they would in their original host, but more rapidly.

The idea was to target three issues raised by traditional meat farming – protect animals from inhumane conditions and eventual slaughter; reduce the environmental damage of large-scale livestock operations; and give humans healthier meat and better food security.

In an update published this month, the magazine reports that Mironov’s vision hasn’t changed, but he’s put the project on the back burner. His lab at the University of South Carolina shut down in 2011 due to personnel issues and now he’s concentrating on organ printing at a 3-D bioprinting company in Russia.

“Maybe I will return to the topic,” he wrote in an email. “In vitro meat production is the inescapable future of humanity.”

Mark Post, physiology chair at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, shares Mironov’s optimism about in vitro meat’s potential. But he says the future isn’t in at-home devices.

“Quite frankly, I don’t see that as a very pragmatic solution,” says Post, who debuted his lab-produced meat (cost: $325,000 per burger) in a highly publicised taste test in London in 2013.

Instead, the focus now is on ramping up efforts to produce it in factory-like settings, Post said.

Bigger production would mean more burgers for more than just a few taste testers, while also sending costs way down.

“In essence, it’s available,” Post says, “but not at the scale that you need for [mass] consumption.”

His optimistic scenario — which depends on the production infrastructure being in place and regulatory approvals — is having a $10 cell-grown hamburger patty on the shelves in four to five years.

But production must be scaled “to a tremendous level” to meet the requirements of supermarkets.

Edible insects could supplement our diets and help reduce harmful emissions

Eating insects instead of beef could help tackle climate change by reducing emissions linked to livestock production, an Edinburgh University news item (HERE) says.

It cites research which suggests replacing half of the meat eaten worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, substantially reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

While consumers’ reluctance to eat insects may limit their consumption, even a small increase would bring benefits, the research team says. This could potentially be achieved by using insects as ingredients in some pre-packaged foods.

Using data collected primarily by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the scientists have compared the environmental impacts of conventional meat production with those of alternative sources of food. It is the first study to do so.

Researchers at Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College considered a scenario in which half of the current mix of animal products is replaced by insects, lab-grown meat or imitation meat.

They found that insects and imitation meat – such as soybean-based foods like tofu – are the most sustainable as they require the least land and energy to produce. Beef is by far the least sustainable, the team says.

In contrast to previous studies, lab-grown meat was found to be no more sustainable than chicken or eggs, requiring an equivalent area of land but using more energy in production.

The team, which includes scientists involved in the N8 Research Partnership’s AgriFood programme, says halving global consumption of animal products by eating more insects or imitation meat would free up 1680 million hectares of land – 70 times the size of the UK.

Similar land savings could also be made by switching from the current mix of animal products to diets higher in chicken and eggs, the team says.

They found that the land required to produce these was only marginally greater than for insects and imitation meat.

As well as being a major contributor to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, current livestock production has other environmental impacts.

Globally, pasture covers twice the area of cropland, and livestock consume around a third of all harvested crops.

The research, published in the journal Global Food Security, was supported by the UK’s Global Food Security Programme and the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme. It was carried out in collaboration with the University of York, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research.

New Zealand futurist Robert Hickson, on his Idealog blog, has written about changing dietary habits and trends and challenges associated with traditional western food consumption.

In a recent post (HERE), he noted:

Insects aren’t yet big on fancy restaurant menus in the US. But they are a gaining popularity in Japan. The UK has at least one restaurant specialising in our invertebrate friends. And Ikea has been thinking about introducing insect meatballs for a couple of years. A Swiss supermarket is planning to sell burgers and meatballs made from mealworms from next month.

New Zealand is no stranger to edible invertebrates, if only occasionally. I couldn’t find reports of insect meals being a staple in New Zealand, but at least two companies offer gourmet arthropod treats – Crawlers and Anteater. Some other food stores offer products containing cricket flour.

Hickson further noted that lab-grown meat prices are dropping rapidly and producers of meat-free burgers “are on a PR offensive”.

And the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, is hoping to become a major supplier of organs for human transplants.

In short, agricultural and social changes will influence why and what we farm. It obviously will influence the relevant science, too.

NZ researchers take step towards tackling allergy with modified milk

New Zealand agricultural scientists have learnt that the calves of a cow modified to have less allergenic milk also have less allergenic milk.

A post on Sciblogs (hereby Dr Grant Jacobs, a Dunedin-based computational biologist, drew AgScience’s attention to the research. He was commenting on an article in the New Zealand Herald, headed GE cow’s offspring show ‘super-milk’ potential.

The research raises hopes of developing a variety of cattle that will produce milk that can be drunk by people with one type of milk allergy.

Dr Jacobs explains that milk allergy is not lactose tolerance.

A number of us are allergic to milk, in a similar way that a number of us are allergic to other types of foods.

β-lactoglobulin is regarded as the main allergen in milk.* (β is the Greek letter, beta; you’ll also see it written beta-lactoglobin.) β-lactoglobulins is considered an important allergen in part because there’s no β-lactoglobulin in human milk.

Around 2-3% of children are allergic to milk. Those with milk allergy can show any of the symptoms of allergy; skin, gastric and breathing problems, including, in rare cases, acute allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).

Usually kids grow out of the allergy, but they carry a higher risk of eczema, egg allergy or allergic asthma in adulthood.

One way to tackle this allergy might be a little prevention: to breed cows that don’t make β-lactoglobulin – without this protein, the allergy problem isn’t there.

The New Zealand researchers blocked the gene that makes β-lactoglobulin.

This way you get just the thing you’re wanting, Dr Jacobs says, and you can try it out on a small scale using a small research team.

One of the great values of genetic engineering is that it enables small teams to do stuff that might otherwise need very large-scale projects.

A catch with the technique they’ve chosen to use, known as RNAi, is that you want to know if the offspring also doesn’t make the protein – is it inherited?

That’s the latest news – they’ve succeeded at that, as you can read in Jamie’s report.

There’s still a long way to go, says Dr Jacobs, “but less-allergenic milk might give an option to those who have developed milk allergy”.

He offers a thought for opponents: if those that don’t want to use milk from cows that were bred to make modified milk, they don’t have to — but there’s no need to block that option for others that do want to.

And he says he would like to learn to what extent the caseins in low β-lactoglobulin milk provokes allergic reactions.

Presumably this milk would be for those allergic to β-lactoglobulin, but not those allergic to caseins.

One line of research suggests that people are allergic to β-lactoglobulin when it lacks iron.** β-lactoglobulins can bind a number of organic molecules, including siderophores. One thing siderophores can do is strongly bind iron. Research has shown that when the β-lactoglobulin protein carries an iron, by holding onto siderophore binding iron it triggers an immune response (e.g. inflammation).

The more widely-known lactose intolerance is because as adults many of us can’t break down & absorb the lactose sugar in milk. It’s more common in non-European people. Since humans starting drinking milk, we’ve started to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, as adults — adaptive evolution in humans as a result of farming!   Adapting to produce lactase as an adult has happened several times independently in different parts of the world.

Dr Jacobs reminds us of his earlier discussion in an article about tracking disease and human migration through genetics.

Massey investigating the possibilities of new food technology

Massey University researchers are investigating whether establishing an Innovation Centre focused on a novel food processing technology could transform New Zealand’s food industry.

The university is hosting representatives from American-based company 915 Labs, which has commercialised the technology, at a workshop on the Manawatu campus today. They have been joined by more than 50 representatives from major food companies, researchers, scientists and Government.

The Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilisation (MATS) and Microwave Assisted Pasturerisation (MAPS) technology was originally developed by Washington State University over a 10-year period, funded by the US government and a wide range of food companies. 915 Labs holds the exclusive, worldwide license to the technology.

MATS uses microwaves to speed up the heating process for packaged foods, essentially combining a continuous retort with a microwave. By reducing the cooking time, food quality can be significantly improved without compromising food safety or shelf life. It also provides an extended shelf-life on heat sensitive products like fish and vegetables that previously have adversely affected by thermal treatment.

MAPS is similar to MATS but operates with lower temperatures and shorter heating times required for pasturerisation. In the MAPS system, packaged foods and beverages are heated simultaneously with hot water and microwave energy to a temperature of 70-90°C for 2-10 minutes, eliminating viral and bacterial pathogens.

Dr Abby Thompson, Director of Massey’s Riddet Innovation, says the technology means products look and taste fresher and retain more sensitive nutritional components, achieving safe food with an extended shelf life.

“This technology enables the development of premium fresh-life foods and meals with enhanced consumer appeal with sufficient shelf life to supply both domestic and export markets with products targeting retail, food service and institutional applications. It is a real game changer,” Dr Thompson says.

The technology has primarily been developed for human ready meals, but there is also a lot of interest in premium pet foods. “Aroma, flavor and colour are all significantly fresher, and we believe there should be higher protein digestibility due to the reduction in heat exposure. Logic also suggests it should be possible to produce premium products with heat-sensitive bioactives that may otherwise not be feasible with traditional methods,” Dr Thompson says.

915 Labs manufactures and sells pilot-scale and commercial-scale MATS systems and will begin producing a MAPS-only system in 2017. Massey University is looking to establish an Innovation Centre for this technology, based at the FoodPilot in Palmerston North. This would be supported by a dedicated team providing food technology, process engineering and regulatory expertise, and would undertake development and validation projects on behalf of the international food industry. The Centre would also enable exciting research collaborations with overseas research groups.

Michael Locatis, chief executive of 915 Labs, was looking forward to meeting with members of the New Zealand food industry and experts from Massey University to talk about the future of packaged food and the impact of microwave processing on the quality and nutrition of ready-to-eat and shelf-stable products.

Phil McGrath, chief executive of Food Locomotive Limited said he was excited by the possible venture.

“MATS is a ground breaking technology that enables us to create true clean label products with improved nutrition, texture and flavour for our customers. This exciting new technology allows us to showcase New Zealand’s quality produce across the globe. MATS is the value-added opportunity we have been looking for.”

Craig Nash, chair of the FoodHQ Commercialisation Stream, is working with Massey University to secure the technology.

Edible nano coating extends the freshness of food

An edible coating has been developed by UNAM researchers to extend the life of vegetables and fruits and preserve them for prolonged refrigeration. This coating with added ingredients could be applied to freshly cut foods.

Using a technology developed at the university, sliced apple could be preserved up to 25 days and a kiwifruit  for two weeks.

But their production is expensive – it costs 70 pesos (around NZ$5) a litre of dispersion to coat 20kg of cut fruit to be placed in convenience stores and consumed later.

After nine years of research, the researchers found that if nanocapsules filled with alpha tocopherol and beta-carotene in fresh-cut vegetables and fruits are dispersed, homogeneous film develops, which inhibits enzymatic browning and extends the life of these foods.

The coating cannot be visibly seen due to immersion method applied to the fruit surface and the active substances are absorbed, leaving the product ready to eat.

Furthermore,  coatings with a variety of flavours can be developed to make the product appealing.


Food supplement sourced from Southland wetland to be researched

A Landcare Research scientist has been granted funding to conduct further research into the commercial potential of an alga which Dr Phil Novis says offers an alternative to the health supplement fish oil.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a high-value, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid. Novis says the alga, found in Southland’s Awarua Wetland,has high levels of EPA. He hopes to build on earlier work to create a commercially viable method to boost EPA levels in the alga, known as Trachydiscus Awa9/2.

Because Trachydiscus Awa9/2 is new to science and its ecology is poorly understood, Novis will conduct a field study to understand its environment and how this affects EPA production. His research will include bioreactor experiments to optimise light quality and other conditions for commercial production.

It is a high-value product, with retail prices for fish-sourced EPA worth $200 per kg. The global EPA industry is worth $450 million per year.

The research is to be funded for the next three years by the Science for Technological Innovation  National Science Challenge, hosted by Callaghan Innovation.

Novis said this research ideally would help develop a local industry that produces purified EPA.

“One of its most obvious applications is as a vegetarian option for people who don’t want fish oil. We may end up growing the alga for aquaculture feed. We just don’t know where this will end up yet. But it’s exciting to get this grant so we can explore its potential.”

 Ngāi Tahu is a key partner in the research. A researcher from the iwi will gather samples from the wetland and send them to Novis for testing at Landcare Research’s laboratories in Lincoln.
A PhD student, based at Canterbury University but originally from Iran, will also assist Novis, as will several of his colleagues at the Crown Research Institute.



Feeding the world with an orchestra of crickets

Alex Figg, 23, who began an architecture degree and became an expert on insect farming, is one of three founders of Critter Farms, an enterprise raising an orchestra of crickets for food.

The final-year Masters of Architecture (Professional) student was researching sustainable architecture when he learnt the World Health Organisation had declared our current agricultural practices unsustainable.

According to the WHO, an estimated 9.3 billion people will require feeding by 2050, with protein being the nutrient in short supply.

While pondering how this would impact on future land use and architecture, Alex and co-founder Elliot Olsen began investigating alternative protein sources.

They discovered that crickets were a sustainable, efficient and nutritious protein source which far outperforms traditional livestock. The insects use 2000 times less water, 12 times less feed, and emit a hundred times fewer greenhouse gases compared to beef.

High in protein, essential salts, vitamins, minerals and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, crickets are a super food of sorts.

While the global population grows and becomes increasingly urban, there will be less arable land available for agriculture.

“Crickets don’t require earth to be farmed, so they can potentially utilise vertical space which can be designed into buildings,” says Alex.

Alex, whose personal goal is to use truly sustainable practices in his life and work, has also been researching a new biodegradation method to recycle problem plastics, utilising advances in environmental science. The idea recently won a Velocity Innovation Challenge Prize worth $1,000.

Between plastic recycling and finishing his architecture degree, he and his Critter Farms colleagues are prototyping cricket farming in Auckland with the target of helping enable a paradigm shift away from our dependence on land for food.

About 2 billion people already eat insects to supplement protein.

Critter Farms crickets are toasted and ground into a nutty flavoured powder which can be used as a tasty, high protein food ingredient. “I recommend you try it,” says Alex.

Find out more or contact the team here.