by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Techno-foods

May 30 2024

What’s new in food tech? A few that caught my fancy

I’m a food technology skeptic but I do enjoy keeping an eye on what food scientists and innovators are coming up with.  Just what we need!

Oct 3 2023

Food warning labels in action: Mexico

I was in Mexico City last week giving the keynote at the FoodTech Summit & Expo.   I could hardly wait to get to the nearby Chedraui supermarket to see what the Mexican warning labels on food packages looked like in practice.

Mexico has high obesity prevalence, especially in children (~35%).  Public health officials hope the warning labels will alert the public to avoid overconsuming processed foods.

Here’s what I saw.

I.  It looks like at least half the products on shelves carry warnings of excessive salt, sugar, saturated fat, or calories, or artificial sweeteners.

II.  One of the regulations says that if a product aimed at children requires a warning label, it cannot display cartoon characters.  For products made before the law, supermarkets comply by pasting stickers over the cartoons.

III.  Food companies are doing everything they can to hide the warning labels.  They make sure the warnings are hidden when they stock the packages on shelves (the only reason you can see the two bottles with the warnings is that I turned them around.

The warnings must be working.  Food companies are evading, undermining, and fighting the new regulations.  Several lawsuits are in progress.  I will be following their progress with great interest.

My messages to the food technology congress:

  • Do not make ultra-processed junk food.
  • Stop fighting public health measures.
Jun 14 2023

RIP Aero Farms: it just went bankrupt

I, for one, am not surprised, but am also not rejoicing.  Aero Farms has just filed for bankruptcy.

I thought Aero Farms was a valiant experiment in vertical leafy green farming run by some very smart people.

Pre-pandemic, I visited their factory in Newark, New Jersey, a couple of times and fjound the place impressive in concept, size, and production.

The photo can’t show how enormous this factory is, with rows of cloth-covered trays stacked to the high ceiling.  The company planted the greens on cloth and sprayed nutrients on the roots growing through the cloth.  The greens were clean, free of pathogenic bacteria, and surprisingly tasty.  They grew several different kinds, all with distinctive flavors.  All were tested to demonstrate their excellent nutritional value.

They sold the greens to a variety of local restaurants and institutions.

But I am not surprised by their going bankrupt.

I am currently working on an updated edition of What to Eat, in which I discuss food issues, one of them vertical farming.  From my research, I can tell you:

  • The kinds of plants that can be grown in vertical farms are limited to those that need relatively low light (e.g. lettuce); even the best LED lights are not strong enough for more profitable vegetables.
  • Lettuce from California costs half as much to produce as lettuce from East Cost vertical farms.
  • The Achilles heel of indoor farming is the cost of all those lights.  Energy from the sun is free.  Electricity from the grid is anything but.
  • AeroFarms reported $35 million in losses in 2021, but predicted profitability by 2024.

Vertical farming is in trouble unless it can solve the light problem.

Was it worth a try?  That’s for you to decide.

In the meantime, Aero Farms is keeping its Danville, California plant open and remaining optimistic that it can continue to brink in venture capital.

Industry reactions to the news are also not surprising.  Those who follow vertical farming knew this was coming.

I’m truly sorry for this experiment failed.

Aug 6 2021

Weekend reading: Technically Food

Larissa Zimberoff.  Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.  Abrams Press, 2021.

This is Zimberoff’s account of her personal conversations, meetings, visits, and observations of the people and venture capitalists behind today’s versions of techno-foods constructed from algae, fungi, peas, plants, and cell cultures.

She comes at these foods from a skeptical standpoint, but gamely tastes everything, judging some of the products delicious despite concerns about their greater meaning for health, the environment, and humanity.

Almost everyone she meets in this business is mission-driven, convinced that their products will help feed the world’s growing population at less cost to health and the environment.

But, as she puts it, “The tension of my health being tied to capitalistic companies that want to make a profit is growing” (p. 3).  Mine too, even after reading her book.

One concern is lack of transparency.  Nobody she met wanted to tell her what’s in the products they are producing or give details on how they are made.

Zimberoff likes some of what she sees, but not all.  She finishes up her discussion with a call for continued skepticism: “Like me, think before you eat.  Don’t believe the hype” (p. 190).

She ends the book in an odd way.  She asked a bunch of people to speculate on what we will all be eating in 20 years.  I was one of the people who commented, and I wish I had been given the opportunity to read my section before it got printed: some of it seems incoherent and I would have appreciated the chance to edit it.  [I just checked, which I should have done earlier.  I was given that opportunity and OK’d it.  My bad.  Culpa mea].

More careful editing would have helped throughout.  For example, I was startled to read this statement about the effects of climate change on algae:

This increase in CO2 leads to a rise in pH levels called ocean acidification, which can harm many creatures in the water.  Algae, on the other hand, may benefit from increased levels, and there are studies looking into whether growing seaweed can slow this rise in pH levels  (p. 10).

Oops.  Rising CO2 levels reduce pH.   Lower pH levels are acidic.  Algae do better at neutral or lower pH levels.

Nov 27 2018

The latest in dietetic junk food

My colleagues who attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual meeting and Expo brought back examples of what I love to call dietetic junk foods.

The big trends in such products are gluten-free and allergy-free—apparently without much regard for taste (at least by my standards).

Here is an example of a gluten-free product: 

Check the ingredient list:

Cane sugar, pea starch, potato starch,non-hydrogenated shortening (palm oil, modified palm oil), white rice flour, tapioca starch, water, tapioca syrup, pea protein, salt, pea fiber, natural flavor, modified cellulose, inulin, sodium bicarbonate, sunflower lecithin, beta-carotene (color).

And, in case you were worried, it’s “not a product of genetic engineering.”

To me they taste like chalk, but sweet.

Here’s an example of an allergy-free product:

It too has a long ingredient list:

Organic rolled oats, rice protein crisps (rice protein, rice starch), tapioca syrup, cocoa butter, pearled sorghum crisps, organic caramel (organic cane sugar, water), date paste, brown sugar, dried banana, roasted and salted sunflower seeds (sunflower kernels, sunflower oil, salt) safflower oil, white pearled sorghum flour, popped sorghum.

But this one is remarkable for what it does not contain:

I did not particularly like the texture or taste (off flavors) of this one.

Apparently, the Expo had loads of these.

Why?  Real (relatively unprocessed) foods are less profitable, alas.

Nov 1 2018

Brave new food world: Will you eat these things?

I’ve started taking note of foods and ingredients still in the research phase or soon to come to a supermarket near lucky you.

Some recent examples:

  • Fat replacer made from wood cellulose.  This is designed to be used to make mayonnaise, sauces, dressings, and ice cream, among other foods.  Why?  This won’t have much in the way of calories or saturated fatty acids.
  • Blue salad dressing made from SpirulinaWhy?  It’s “Instagrammable.”
  • Crickets for breakfastInvestigators fed muffins made with dried cricket powder to 20 courageous volunteers.  Why?  “These data suggest that eating crickets may improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation.”  But note the disclaimer: “more research is needed to understand these effects and underlying mechanisms.”
  • Salmon skin chips.  “The skins are washed and boiled before cooking which rmoves any ‘overly fishy’ taste, and are available in three flavours: lightly salted; salt & vinegar and lime and vinegar.”
  • Insect-based protein supplements for athletes, vanilla flavoredWhy?  “Opportunities in sports nutrition, and particularly in bulk powders, are greater than those in bars right now—especially given existing competition in the insect bar space.”
  • Danish insect buffalo worm bar: Denmark-based Wholifoods has developed a buffalo worm energy bar rich in iron, zinc and magnesium to plug deficiencies and provide holistic sport nutrition stretching beyond protein which is ‘very hyped’, its co-founder says. Read more
  • Danish protein juice: crickets, coffee & mushrooms: Another month, another insect start-up? Maybe, but Danish firm Insekt KBH’s apple, ginger and cricket juice is different: it’s sustainable not only thanks to its ingredients but because it’s produced in Copenhagen’s self-sustaining urban food loop. Read more
  • Wilde Chicken Chips: Wilde Chicken Chips – thinly-sliced premium cuts of chicken tossed in tapioca flour, fried in coconut oil, and seasoned in various spices – reached nationwide availability at Whole Foods and Sprouts stores last month and will be debuting a new flavor early next year that founder Jason Wright believes will make chips a breakfast snack item. Read more
  • Walkers Chips flavored with brussels sprouts or Iceland chips flavored with pine needles:  “We know the sprout debate is one that divides the nation, so we wanted to offer product solutions for both sides of the debate, and ask people to decide whether they are a #SproutLover or #SproutHater,” said Andrew Hawkswell, marketing manager of brand owner PepsiCo.”

Yum.  Can’t wait.

Oct 30 2007

Chocolate is a health food! (well, maybe)

I am so happy to hear that the French chocolate company, Barry Callebaut, is marketing a probiotic chocolate–one packed with friendly bacteria like the kind in yogurt. Only the company claims that chocolate is a better source of probiotic bacteria than yogurt. And you only need to eat half an ounce a day! Chocoholics rejoice! Skeptics roll your eyes! Personally, I like my chocolate unfunctional. File this one under Techno-Foods.