Processed Foods for Human Health

The Periodic Table of Food will provide data to the food industry to catalyze the innovation of affordable and nutritious processed foods that can alleviate the global inequality of malnutrition.

What is the Problem and Why Does it Matter?

Poor diets cannot simply be blamed on personal choice. Access and affordability are also critical. Affordable foods are not always nutritious, and nutritious foods are not always affordable (IFTF, 2018). Consumers are increasingly purchasing processed foods, but these products often lack nutritional density, which means global health problems and inequalities remain, including:

  • Malnutrition: Globally, 1 in 9 are hungry or undernourished, nearly a third are anemic, 1 in 3 are overweight or obese, and almost a quarter of all children under 5 are stunted (Blood, 2014WHO, 2019FAO, 2020). Global efforts to reduce these issues are making slow progress. In fact, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 (WHO, 2020).
  • Global inequalities: Nutrition outcomes vary significantly across countries. In low income countries, rates of those who are underweight can be ten times higher than in higher income countries, where rates of obesity are up to five times higher (Glob. Nut. Rep., 2020).
  • Local inequalities: Striking nutritional inequalities tied to race, location, age, gender, education and wealth are seen within all countries, and are often compounded by conflicts and economic shocks, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic (Glob. Nut. Rep., 2020).

Highly processed foods are available, cheap and intensively marketed, sometimes with misleading health claims (IFTF, 2018), however, they can be time-savers when preparing meals, and can sometimes provide important nutrients that may not otherwise be obtained in a busy household or with a limited food budget. Innovating processed foods to retain or incorporate components of nutritional benefit could greatly contribute towards a nutritionally equitable food system, but this can only be achieved when we have a better understanding of what is in our food. While progress has been made to address essential vitamin and mineral deficiencies through food fortification programs, global malnutrition remains. As known and unknown components in food in various processed forms are catalogued and linked to health, innovation will follow that will ultimately benefit society.

“Food processing and much of the food industry evolved to extend shelf life and improve food safety for growing urban populations. At times, this came at a price, including the loss of valuable nutritional benefits.” says Ralph Jerome, former head of Global Innovation for Mars Incorporated. “For example, milling rice to remove the bran layer was a common practice in Japan to enhance shelf life and improve flavor. White rice was also seen as a status symbol. Unfortunately, removing bran also eliminated the B vitamins resulting in Edo disease, a B vitamin deficiency. A food processing technique called parboiling can be used to address this issue by driving the B vitamins from the bran into the rice, also yielding a stable, tasty, and faster cooking white rice. So, in this example we can see food processing methods can both reduce and enhance micronutrient value.”

Jerome is concerned that the nutritious parts of traditional diets such as pulses or legumes are relegated to “condiment status” alongside a few less expensive staple crops such as rice or wheat. “Stunting is particularly prevalent in South Asia and some Sub-Saharan African countries and is linked, among other factors, to poor-quality diets. New processed products can be developed to address these nutrient deficits, while also taking into consideration affordability, handling, and attractiveness to the consumers. Our research, for example, has shown that extrusion processing increases the bioavailability of specific amino acids from legumes in comparison to known values for traditional processing methods. A further study reveals that snacks produced via this processing method produce metabolic changes that could be associated with improved linear growth in stunted children. Much more work needs to be done, but these trials indicate that mindful food processing can have beneficial impact.”

Jerome believes this is the start of an exciting era of processed food innovation, but a more detailed comprehension of food is needed to catalyze this change. “We are only just starting to understand how some specific components in food relate to our health, for example, cocoa contains compounds that have beneficial cardiovascular properties, but they may also be good for our gut bacteria. If we knew the exact composition of foods eaten by populations around the world whose long lives are attributed to diet, we could incorporate the beneficial properties into processed foods.”

Proposed Solution: A Periodic Table of Food

Industries use digital data to catalyze innovation by taking advantage of modern technology, such as complex algorithms and machine learning, to interrogate banks of large datasets for new solutions. This is not currently possible for the food industry as the quantity of robust detailed information about the composition of our food is lacking. This is further exacerbated by the fact that methods used to measure these components vary, reducing the reliability and comparability of the data  

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is a global effort to greatly expand our understanding of the biochemical components of our food. This includes the creation of standardized kits and methods for categorizing thousands of compoundsallowing for the low-cost production of vast amounts of inter-operable data. Modern analytical techniques can then be deployed to probe this information, which will be housed in a publicly accessible database. As the bank of data of known (and unknown) functional properties such as taste, nutrition, and consistency growsinnovative, nutritious, affordable and attractive products can be designed and processed to retain or incorporate components of interest, including those that can be of benefit to human health. 

What is the Potential Impact?

Health and Nutrition:

  • Addressing malnutrition inequality. The provision of affordable yet nutritious processed food, which has been enabled through data provided by the Periodic Table of Food will enable communities currently suffering from malnutrition to curb dietary-related issues.
  • Reducing diet-related diseases. Obesity, diabetes, cardiometabolic disease, some cancers, and more can all be reduced if people are offered appealing inexpensive products that are nutritionally superior to current processed foods.
  • Creating food with benefits. Time-honored traditional health practices and ingredients, as well as new scientific breakthroughs, can be incorporated into processed foods as we start to understand the biochemical components in food that are beneficial to health (IFTF, 2018).

Sustainability:

  • Increasing ingredient diversity. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will help to identify biochemical properties such as taste, consistency, and nutrition from different sources that could be of benefit in processed foods and to human health, in turn driving demand for a wider variety of crops.

Economic Opportunities:

  • Promoting novel foods. The food industry can use functional composition data provided to design nutritious processed foods that are also attractive to consumers.
  • Managing microbiota. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will enable researchers to link how our diet, health, and microbiome are interconnected, opening up new opportunities to design food that resists spoilage, tastes better and nourishes our bodies (IFTF, 2018).
  • Creating value from waste streams. Cataloguing the total component parts in a food could give waste value. Wine is a good example – a lot of the health benefits of grapes are removed with the skins and seeds. Knowing their composition could transform the importance of these typically discarded items.
  • Optimizing processing. New insights about food composition will enable food processing systems to be optimized to incorporate and retain beneficial compounds that contribute to taste, composition, spoilage, and nutrition, while eliminating those with negative effects.

Jerome believes the Periodic Table of Food Initiative will be extremely important for cataloguing the known and currently unknown components of our food for future generations. “As our diets have become more reliant on a narrower range of foods and as genetic manipulation of crops focus on the traditional economic value of yield there is concern that many beneficial nutrients will become extinct as they are inadvertently bred out of our foods. This has health implications, including the health of our gut microbiome. By compiling a comprehensive record of food’s composition, interesting and potentially important components in food will not be lost.”