Fighting World Hunger with Food Technology

Nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from chronic starvation according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Conventionally, food technology has been associated most strongly with the production of processed foods, sweets, and snacks. However, this technical field has also been crucial in developing solutions to tackle world hunger. This article provides some food technology examples which are at the vanguard of potentially solving malnutrition and hunger issues across the globe.

Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food

Affecting almost 16 million young children across the globe, severe acute malnutrition (SAM) is a life-threatening condition. In order to tackle this worldwide malnutrition epidemic, low-cost, low-moisture materials were used to develop ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) with the purpose of providing at-home nutritional therapy. RUTFs contain minerals and vitamins, sugars and other protein additives such as milk powder or whey for a total amino acid composition.

This is because they use peanuts as a protein and lipid base. RUTFs are designed in order to be nutrition dense, easily digestible, require no refrigeration, maintain a long shelf-life due to a low-moisture content, and be able to be packaged for ease of storage and transport. A number of organizations compete with UNICEF for supply contracts. These include Valid Nutrition, MANA Nutrition, and Nutriset, which supplies the very successful Plumpy’Nut.

Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) is a life-threatening condition that affects nearly 16 million young children around the world.  These children are nine times more likely to die compared to nourished children. To combat this global malnutrition epidemic, ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) were developed to provide in-home nutritional therapy using low-cost, low-moisture materials. Using peanuts as a protein and lipid base, RUTFs contain vitamins and minerals, sugars, and other protein additives such as whey or milk powder for a complete amino acid composition.

RUTFs are designed to be easily digestible, be nutrient dense, maintain a long shelf-life from the low-moisture content, require no refrigeration, and packaged for ease of transport and storage. Several organizations compete for supply contracts with UNICEF, including MANA Nutrition, Valid Nutrition, and Nutriset, which supplies the highly successful Plumpy’Nut.

Protein Reactor

A method of producing synthetic protein using electricity from renewable resources has been discovered by researchers in a joint study between VTT Technical Research Centre and Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) of Finland. The process involves applying an electrical current through a mixture of carbon dioxide, water, and microorganisms. The bioreactor produces a gram of crude food containing 25 percent lipids and nucleic acids, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 50 percent protein after two weeks.

This process can be used to feed people suffering from famines or starvation because the process is continuous and independent of environmental conditions which can affect farm-based methods of producing food. The goal of this project is the production of environmentally sustainable food with a superior energy efficiency than present current farming methods, although it is still in its early development stages.

Food Powder

One-third of the total food produced across the globe is either lost or wasted according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The most wasted foods are fruits and vegetables. An international team from Land University has come up with FoPo Food Powder.

This startup collects fruits and vegetables which are near their expiration dates from farms for a low-cost and then transforms them into a shelf-stable product that can last up to two years by spray-drying. The nutritional content of the original product can still be retained while the product is simply transported in powder form. Recently, the team both won the Thought for Food Challenge and completed a successful fundraising campaign through Kickstarter.

Cricket Farming

Insect-eating, otherwise known as Entomophagy, is becoming a popular sustainable solution for the alleviation of world hunger. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization wrote a report in 2013 which demonstrated that insect-based foods contained high levels of essential nutrients, including a complete composition of proteins. Start-up companies such as Bitty Goods, Exo, Entomo Farms, Aspire, and Six Foods have used this knowledge to try and develop and supply cricket-based food products for human consumption.

Cricket flour is the main ingredient used in these products – a powdered protein sourced from roast-dried crickets which are then combined with a regular flour to ensure flow. The biggest challenge for the edible insect market, however, is the predominant food culture which deems insect eating as a taboo. Furthermore, there is a lack of technical knowledge about how cricket powder behaves in foods, as off-flavors are produced by the lipids in cricket powder during storage.

Microalgae

As the global population continues to grow, there is likely to be an increased requirement for foods which are high in nutrients. A recently completed study indicates that microalgae could constitute one of several potential solutions to the looming challenges of sustainability and food abundance. Microalgae have omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, and a high nutritional content. Spirulina microalgae, as an example, boasts a protein content of 65% its total dry weight. It is easy to grow microalgae using sunlight and carbon dioxide in open ponds, using either fresh or saltwater.

An alternative technique is to grow them in photobioreactors with LEDs used as the light source. This method has the benefit of being independent of changing solar light as well as being stackable, thus offering a way to vertically scale food production. New processes are required, however, in order to convert the microalgae into a product which is edible for humans. Companies such as Corbion (formerly known as TerraVia and Solazyme) continue to face technological issues when growing microalgae to scale. There are also food safety challenges after a recent consumer backlash against increased incidences of gastrointestinal distress when their algal flour was included in Soylent’s product.

Edible Drone

A significant number of resources are involved in emergency food supply airdrops onto inaccessible, food-starved regions. It is estimated that the cost of an airdrop is around $1,000 per ton of food. This includes materials, air transport, fuel, parachutes, and crate packaging. Nigel Gifford began Windhorse Aerospace in order to reduce the level of wastage, and design the first disposable, edible drone to serve on humanitarian aid missions.

Largely constructed of food materials, this drone is called the Pouncer, and its main body and wings are filled with a range of foods. The remaining structure is built from wood and can be used as a fuel for heat and cooking. The edible drone has been criticized, however, for its poor execution and a lack of insight into the problems accompanying humanitarian aid.

While none of these technologies alone is capable of solving the crisis of world hunger, each may contribute in its own way to tackling the growing challenge as the world population continues to increase.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Kolabtree, originally written by Bryan Le. Bryan Le is currently a Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholar and PhD student in the Department of Food Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bryan holds an M.A. and B.Sc. in Chemistry from University of California, Irvine.

For more information on this source, please visit Kolabtree.

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