Healthy Food Ingredients: The Next Generation

Healthy Food Ingredients: The Next Generation

To boldly go where no one has gone before.” That old Star Trek tagline sums up how food companies are engaging in utilizing evolving science and technologies to address growing demands for healthier, more sustainable, and more earth-friendly foods and beverages. Artificial intelligence (AI) and precision fermentation are two examples of how the food industry is leveraging science to not only create new nutritional ingredients, but also make traditional ingredient production eco-friendlier and more cost-effective.

Consumers, especially younger generations, are embracing the use of science if it helps to better the planet. “Research suggests millennials and Gen Z consumers are more open to new technologies than older generations. Their knowledge and desire for sustainable ingredients continues to grow—and they actively seek ingredients that align with their personal ethos,” observes Mark Fahlin, category marketing manager, Cargill. Research conducted by Cargill with The Hartman Group found consumers were familiar with fermentation in a broad sense, and three-quarters (77%) of those familiar with precision fermentation say they are likely to purchase products made with its ingredients.

Regarding AI, a trends report published by Datassential in 2023 cited that 77% of consumers say they are open to trying a product created by computers. “Whether we are educating consumers on the many benefits of using AI in food processing and development (more sustainable, more affordable, more delicious, health benefits through precise nutrition) or giving them a look at the back-end operations in which AI is used, there is hope that consumers will be more open and accepting of the role technology plays in their food as every industry and aspect of life continues to digitize and accelerate in technological innovation,” adds Jan-Willem van Klinken, senior vice president of medical, scientific, and regulatory affairs, Brightseed.

Artificial Intelligence

Consumer interaction with AI typically includes chatbots, personal assistants, and smart home devices. Most are not aware of AI in the food industry, but it can and has been utilized. Companies use AI to analyze datasets, which can lead to improved efficiencies in food production and product development, prediction of food safety risks, and optimization of supply chain management.

An enormous amount of data is being created across food, nutrition, and health science spaces, whether in metabolomics, proteomics, genomics, or personal data from dietary intake, nutrition, and health, says van Klinken. AI algorithms are taking and clustering this data in groups to show how these data sets correlate with each other, giving granular insight into datasets and finding novel associations with health outcomes.

“In food and nutrition, AI is a promising and critical tool in R&D, specifically making the area more focused, transparent, and accurate, and enabling speed five, 10, even 15 times faster than what was previously thought possible. It also brings extraordinary layers of visibility into formerly opaque food and health territories, such as Brightseed’s expansion into decoding novel bioactives that emerge from plant and bacterial interactions within the microbiome. Ultimately, AI acts as a powerful wayfinder for companies to enter into these growth categories, de-risking key aspects of the innovation cycle,” van Klinken adds.

Meati Foods Fermentation Area

Photo courtesy of Meati Foods

AI is also being used to discover health benefits of existing food products. Last year, Meati Foods partnered with AI company PIPA to accelerate the understanding of the health benefits of Meati’s products (95% mushroom root) across a multitude of consumer populations and segments and define opportunities for new products. A complete protein source with a complex array of other nutrients naturally present in Meati products suggests the potential for positive impact on heart health, digestion, the immune system, and blood glucose levels.

Analyzing data also can lead to the discovery of new ingredients. For example, Brightseed uses its AI-driven computational platform, Forager, to discover health-activating bioactive compounds in plants, fungi, and bacteria to develop novel, efficacious ingredients for food and beverage, specialized nutrition, and consumer health companies. By understanding the biological target (e.g., receptor, enzymes, etc.) that certain bioactive plant compounds trigger to impart human health benefits, AI is accelerating the understanding and specific linkage between diet and wellness. These insights speed up research and development to get efficacious bioactive ingredients into more food products to impact consumer health at scale. Forager is on track to map more than 10 million plant compounds (phytochemicals) impacting 23 human health areas by the end of 2025, expanding what is known to science by more than 100 times, says van Klinken.

In addition, AI can be used to show consumers the true nutritional value and health benefits of the foods they eat with research and data supporting bioactives. For example, existing studies have shown selected frozen fruits and vegetables have higher levels of bioactives when they are snap-frozen, explains van Klinken. Accelerating more of these insights through AI is not only important for consumer health benefits but can empower consumers to make beneficial and cost-effective produce selections as prices continue to rise.

Precision Fermentation

Traditional fermentation has been used for decades to produce ingredients like soy sauce, citric and lactic acid, and erythritol. Precision fermentation is an evolution of this process, using an engineered yeast, bacteria, or fungi to ferment substrates, resulting in desired ingredients, like proteins, flavors, bioactives, or sweeteners. This can often be more eco-friendly as it can potentially reduce the need for land, water, and even animals.

Most recently, Unilever’s Breyers brand launched Breyers Lactose-Free Chocolate ice cream made with Perfect Day’s animal-free dairy protein from precision fermentation. The whey protein is lactose-free and made with a reduced environmental footprint. An ISO-compliant, third-party-reviewed life cycle assessment found that Perfect Day’s process reduces blue water consumption by up to 99%, greenhouse gas emissions by up to 97%, and nonrenewable energy use by up to 60%, when compared to traditional production methods.

Another company, TurtleTree, offers a dairy-free lactoferrin. The genetic sequence of lactoferrin is inserted into a microbe, which is then placed into a fermenter where it grows and produces lactoferrin. Programming microbes with the genetic sequence of bovine lactoferrin results in a bioidentical animal-free lactoferrin. This benefits food manufacturers and consumers by expanding the global lactoferrin supply without increasing animal use or their associated greenhouse gas emissions, says Shou Wong, chief innovation officer, TurtleTree.

Besides proteins, precision fermentation can be used to create other nature-identical ingredients, creating a more consistent, reliable supply of ingredients that are often found in small quantities in nature. For example, Reb M and Reb D are sweet-tasting molecules that exist in the stevia leaf at low levels, less than 1%, making it difficult to produce a sweetener using a traditional agronomic approach. Cargill uses precision fermentation to create a stevia sweetener with these molecules.

“We moved from the field to fermentation, using a specially crafted yeast to produce the same Reb M and Reb D molecules found in minute quantities in the stevia leaf,” explains Erin Marasco, global biology leader, Cargill. “Fermentation allows for production in quantities and at a price point that makes widespread commercial use possible. This in turn opens the door for greater innovation related to sugar reduction across a myriad of food and beverage categories.” This approach also offers significant environmental benefits, requiring less water and land, and resulting in a much lower carbon footprint than if plants or even bioconversion are used to produce the company’s Reb M sweetener, she adds.

In 2024, bioengineering company Gnosis announced that it used fermentation to launch a bioactive ingredient found in Rhodiola rosea or Rhodiola crenulate called salidroside. Salidroside has been found to promote anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-aging, and neuroprotective functionalities in pharmaceuticals used to treat depression, tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other ailments. Fermentation bypasses the need to harvest Rhodiola rosea, offering a sustainable source of the botanical. According to Gnosis, results of a clinical study showed that supplementation with salidroside may be an effective way to enhance oxygen uptake during graded exercise.

New Frontiers

Precision fermentation, like AI, is a powerful tool, and it will be exciting to see how it continues to affect the food industry. Combining AI and precision fermentation creates opportunities to streamline fermentation processes, further reducing waste and protecting the planet’s resources. The two can also be used together to enhance personalization in the food industry. By analyzing genetic, gut microbiome, metabolomic, and blood test data, AI could design custom precision fermentation-derived foods to meet individual nutritional needs and preferences.

This level of personalization could revolutionize dietary habits and address specific health concerns, observes TurtleTree’s Wong. “Imagine AI-driven microbes crafting personalized steaks or AI chefs tailoring meals based on real-time health data. This synergy will not only enhance product quality but also improve consumer satisfaction.”

In other words, the combination of AI and fermentation technologies to produce new nutritional ingredients holds much promise in helping consumers to live long and prosper, as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would say. If so, beam us up, Scotty! It’s going to be a fantastic ride into those strange new worlds.ft


Kerri Waldron

My name is Kerri Waldron and I am an avid healthy lifestyle participant who lives by proper nutrition and keeping active. One of the things I love best is to get to where I am going by walking every chance I get. If you want to feel great with renewed energy, you have to practice good nutrition and stay active.

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