The need to preserve food is as old as time, but today’s consumers want preservatives that are natural and sustainable. Innovative firms are harnessing ancient techniques with modern technology, and finding new ways forward.
The Challenges of Preservatives
With modern refrigeration and food packaging technologies, you might think that food preservation isn’t a challenge for today’s food brands. And yet it remains an ongoing challenge, not just in the food and beverage industry, but also in cosmetics and personal care and other perishable consumer goods. We need preservatives to:
- Keep foods fresh, appealing, and safe to eat. Obviously this is the most important task of food preservation. Foods need to not just be good, they need to look and smell good. Effective preservation is a key component in reducing food waste, which affects consumer budgets as well as environmental impact.
- Allow for long transit and shelf-life before it reaches the consumer. Many modern food products have long shipping routes, and spend time in warehouses, shipping containers, and store shelves before they reach the consumer. From the customer’s perspective, food bought at the store should be “fresh”, so the only shelf life that matters is the time on their own shelves at home. But many foods have been packaged for a long time before they reach your cupboards.
- Not alter the taste, texture, or appearance of food. Many classic preservation methods like drying, freezing, or salting food are extremely effective, but have a significant effect on the texture or appearance of food.
- Be natural and sustainable. Benzoates, nitrites, and sulphites are all food-safe preservatives that have been widely in use for decades. But today, many consumers would prefer to avoid these compounds in their food, and want more natural ingredients on their food labels.
For all these reasons, food scientists and innovators are looking for new ways to preserve food that meet all these important criteria. Biotechnology is the most promising area for research, because it can harness natural, organic systems to preserve food.
Innovations in Food Preservation
Here are some of the latest biotech preservation innovations:
- Bacteriocins. Bacteriocins are toxins produced by some bacteria to inhibit the growth of other bacteria, allowing them to out-compete related organisms. In the 1960s, the bacteriocin nisin was approved for use as a food additive, suppressing pathogens and spoilage in processed meats and cheeses. Nisin is unusual among bacteriocins because it has a broader spectrum of effect: most bacteriocins have a narrower range of target bacteria, and they are expensive to create. However, with the rise of antibiotic resistance, scientists are taking a closer look at the many applications of bacteriocins in medicine and food preservation. In particular, when bacteriocins are combined with essential oils, they have a synergistic effect that kills common food-borne pathogens like listeria. Bacteriocins are especially promising in foods, because not only do they preserve food, but they can reduce the amount of heat and/or salt needed to kill pathogens during processing, and can enhance the nutritional profile of food, making foods naturally both safer and healthier. The challenge remains that bacteriocins can be slow and expensive to create, which leads to:
- Genome editing. Historically, consumers have a resistance to GMO-labeled foods, so many food scientists have continued to work with lab-grown clones of generally accepted beneficial bacteria like lactic acid bacteria. However, targeted gene editing has the potential to make production of specific bacteria strains much faster and more affordable, and may also allow for the rapid creation of alternative strains that merit research and investigation. In March of this year, the EU agreed that current restrictions on genetic modification in food production are out of date, and that legislation needs to be changed to allow for the many beneficial applications of gene editing technologies. A change in EU guidelines would benefit the agriculture, industrial, and pharmaceutical industries, and create more opportunities for scientific advancement in this important area within Europe.
- Hurdle technology. The “hurdle” metaphor has been in use since the 1970s, and it describes a series of food processing and preservation techniques applied to a single product. The idea is that if the first obstacle doesn’t kill a pathogen, the next one will, in an escalating series of “hurdles” that work synergistically to keep food safe. Typical hurdles involve physical barriers like pasteurization and heat processing, freezing, high pressure, ultrasonic or ultraviolet treatments; chemical barriers like carbon dioxide, lactic acid and pH adjustments, salt, and ozone; and microbial hurdles like antibiotics, protective cultures, or competitive flora. Hurdle technology is incredibly effective in food preservation of all kinds, and can maintain the desired characteristics of the food while eliminating unwanted bacteria and extending shelf life. For example, heat processing and pasteurization may work well for dairy products, while cold processing or freezing may work better for fruit and vegetables. When food producers consider preserving food with a series of processes (physical, chemical, and microbial), but have the freedom to mix-and-match the right specific solutions with the desired outcome, optimizing at every stage, food can be rendered safe, stable, and delicious for longer.
It’s fascinating that so many of the latest biotech advances in food preservation involve looking back at older technologies, including ancient methods like fermentation, to chart a new, natural way forward. Researchers, chemists, and food scientists are taking a fresh look at keeping food fresh, and their passion and care show up in your kitchen every day. Grapefrute supports these innovators in their efforts to make a more sustainable, safer, more delicious future. Contact us today if you need innovation specialists for your food products.