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12 ways that research is changing the food of the future

Copyright: BBSRC

Across the world, tens of thousands of scientists are looking at ways to improve our food.

The stuff we put on our plates already looks a lot different from the wild varieties domesticated by our ancestors around 10,000 years ago. And given the pressures of population growth, climate change and extreme weather, as well as better knowledge of the nutritional value of everything from carbs to vitamins and how food affects our gut bacteria, there’s no reason to suppose these incremental and mostly beneficial changes won’t continue well into the future.

If you’re also interested in food production, check out our in-depth Farms of the Future video feature.


Copyright: Tom Rolfe on Flickr by CC 2.0
Disappointment like this could be a thing of the past. Copyright: Tom Rolfe on Flickr by CC 2.0

1. The ice cream that doesn’t melt (as much) and other wonders

I remember crying over a melted ice cream when I was a child. Tomorrow’s children will have to cry about something else, because future food will be replete with ever craftier ingredient combinations, tailored to specific products.

Scientists have developed an ice cream from a naturally-occurring protein that makes it more resistant to melting. The protein binds together the air, fat and water in ice cream, creating a super-smooth consistency.

Funded by BBSRC and EPSRC, researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Dundee developed a method of producing the protein – known as BslA – in friendly gut bacteria. This is a safe and well-established technique used to produce rennet is for cheese and insulin for medical use.

“We have just recognised and characterised how the protein works, and as a consequence identified its commercial potential, particularly in foodstuffs,” says Professor Cait MacPhee who led the research from The University of Edinburgh. “The challenge now is to scale up that production to industry levels.”

This headline-making research could also be utilised to make future products with lower levels of saturated fat and fewer calories – news that should surely bring only tears of joy.

2. A super food that actually deserves the name

Many people are sceptical of the term ‘super foods’ and with good reason: who decides if its super, and what does super actually mean? But one product that has a better claim than most is the Beneforté 'super broccoli' that hit UK supermarket shelves in 2011. Now sold in several countries, it’s 2-3 times higher in a natural compound called glucoraphanin, which could help to maintain cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of cancer.

Copyright: IFR
Beneforté ‘super broccoli’ went on sale in the UK in 2011. Copyright: IFR

“We are hoping to obtain an EFSA-endorsed health claim following completion of the human studies,” says Professor Richard Mithen from the Institute of Food Research, a centre that receives strategic funding from BBSRC to undertake long-term studies. “We are hoping to confirm the reduction in LDL cholesterol that we have observed in two previous studies. We also have a trial in progress involving men who have prostate cancer.”

In fact, Mithen himself picked the wild varieties of broccoli that led to the enhanced product in Sicily. It took 27 years of conventional breeding and product development before first being sold in a major UK supermarket Marks & Spencer.

And the higher levels of glucoraphanin are good for the broccoli too – it has natural properties that deters pests like slugs, snails, rabbits and mice from eating it. Watch a video for more on super broccoli.

3. ‘Smart’ food ingredients that just love your gut

Looking at the effect our gut bacteria have on the way we absorb food and nutrients (as well as drugs) is now a massive research effort. There are more bacterial cells in our guts than human cells in the body, all reacting to and secreting compounds that are crucial to our health, as well as working within a matrix of indigestible plant fibre, which is also needed for wellbeing.

Copyright: TLFurrer/Thinkstock
Adding relatively simple compounds to some foods could improve digestive system health. Copyright: TLFurrer/Thinkstock

Scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Glasgow have now found a compound that, when delivered to the right place in the colon, can prevent weight gain in overweight adult humans by making you feel fuller.

It’s called inulin propionate ester (IPE), and although it might sound a bit complex, it simply combines two components already present in our diets – inulin and propionate – combined in such a way that propionate is released specifically in the large intestine. “This mimics the natural process of dietary fibre breakdown in the gut by the gut microbes,” says Dr Douglas Morrison at the University of Glasgow.

Increased dietary fibre intake is associated with lower body fat mass and lower body weight accumulation with age, which occurs through a complex interaction between diet, the gut microbes and human metabolism. “What we have done is to target a pathway in which propionate in the large intestine hits a cascade of molecular signals which play a key role in preventing weight gain,” says Douglas. “This simply mimics what happens in very high fibre intakes but with fewer side-effects to the consumer.”

In human trials, participants have consumed the lab-made IPE with common foods, such as a smoothie and bread roll, and have reported either as equally pleasant. Morrison and his collaborator Professor Gary Frost at Imperial hope that if regulatory approvals go well products containing IPE could be on the shelves in 2-3 years.

Copyright: Neil Palmer/CIAT on Flickr by CC 2.0
Nutritionally enhanced crops, developed by GM or not, are going to be BIG. Copyright: Neil Palmer/CIAT on Flickr by CC 2.0

4. Biofortification for the people

Carbohydrates have had a bit of a hard time of it recently. A diet too high in carbs have been associated with type 2 diabetes, and trendy hipsters are all giving up eating bread unless it’s called ‘artisanal’ and very, very expensive.

But the nutritional content of carb-rich foods is a deadly serious matter. Bread and foods made from cereals like wheat are staple meals for billions and how most of us obtain enough calories to get through the day. So improving the nutritional profile, say with iron because iron deficiency is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world, is clearly a worthwhile pursuit, especially for people in the developing world where it might be most of what they eat.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC), an institute that receives strategic funding from BBSRC, are looking to create varieties of wheat biofortified with more iron. It’s a tough job, says Dr Janneke Balk at JIC, because the wheat genome is enormous – it has more DNA than a person!

“Colleagues who work with rice, mostly based in China and Japan, are well ahead of us with research on iron biofortification. This is because rice is easier to work with: it has a relatively small genome and is diploid [one pair of chromosomes],” says Balk. “In contrast, wheat has a huge genome, only just sequenced, and is hexaploid [three pairs of chromosomes].”

She says that for rice, increases of about six-fold more iron have been achieved. “These are based on genetic modification (GM) strategies. Traditional breeding strategies can only increase iron levels to about three-fold.” For wheat, the natural variation in iron levels is very limited to start with, so there is much less scope for breeding strategies. However, Balk’s team are using a non-GM ‘induced mutant’ [by chemicals or radiation] strategy, which she says looks more promising to increase iron levels.

Copyright: Valerie on Flickr by CC 2.0
Changing cows’ feed can have beneficial effects on the milk produced. Copyright: Valerie on Flickr by CC 2.0

5. Massive food-chain level interventions

We might not love the fact that most of our food is produced on an industrial scale (which it is, and across the developing world too), but it’s a system that provides opportunities and benefits for consumers, producers and the wider environment.

Milk, for example, accounts for a whopping 17% of the UK’s economic output in agriculture (£4.36Bn in 2014). But milk and dairy products contribute about 30% of dietary-saturated fats that are often associated with cardiovascular disease and obesity, now leading causes of death in Europe and the US.

So a consortium of researchers led by Professor Ian Givens at the University of Reading set out to make milk with reduced saturated fat. They did this by changing cows’ diets and adding more oily seeds like rapeseed and linseed. The result was a product lower in saturated fats and higher in monounsaturated fat, which replaced regular milk at a leading UK supermarket.

The milk is has a lower carbon footprint too. Studies show that using oilseeds in the cows’ diet leads to a marked reduction in the amount of methane the cow produces per litre of milk. And using home-grown feed supplements meant dairies were able to switch from using palm oil, which comes with environmental concerns if not sourced sustainably.

The foods of the future will look more like this and take an increasing stock of effects on the wider food chain on consumer health and the environment. It’s research that scooped the top Innovator of the Year award from BBSRC. Watch a video for more on healthier high street milk.

Copyright: The Roslin Institute
A disease free animal is a happier animal, like these GM chickens that can’t pass on bird flu. Copyright: The Roslin Institute

6. Food animals that can’t catch a cold

I’ll admit that when tucking into a burger or enjoying a Sunday roast, I don’t think too much about the journey the animal has made to my plate. Fortunately many other people do, and they’re doing everything they can to make sure that animals don’t suffer unnecessarily, from disease for example. In fact, scientists can now breed animals that don’t get infected by or pass on certain diseases at all, including ones that cause sickness and death in humans.

Chickens are hugely popular meat now with upwards of 50Bn produced globally each year. But bird flu can cause pain and suffering to the birds, and millions have been culled (and wasted) by bird flu outbreaks in the last decade. So scientists at The Roslin Institute, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, have genetically engineered chickens that, while they are not resistant to bird flu, can't transmit the disease to other chickens, potentially halting epidemics.

Researchers at Roslin have also used new ‘genome editing’ techniques to delete just a few base pairs of DNA to make domestic pigs more like their wild warthog relatives and resistant to African swine fever virus, a disease circulating on the periphery of Europe that – with up to 90% mortality – could devastate the pig industry across the continent.

Just think of all that bacon, saved.

7. Fortification is not just for breakfast cereals

Copyright: Margouillatphotos/Thinkstock
Foods for babies and pregnant women could have more bioavailable nutrients added. Copyright: Margouillatphotos/Thinkstock

Caption: Breeding crops that contain more nutrients is one way to counter nutrient deficiencies. But adding them to foods, like breakfast cereal fortification with vitamins is another, more established (and some would argue more palatable) method.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) are also looking into fortifying food with a natural iron nanoparticle called ferritin that has high bioavailability.

“We’ve done bioavailability assays and the iron in peas (e.g. cooked) is not bioavailable, at least not to intestinal cells grown in cell culture,” says Dr Janneke Balk at JIC. “In contrast, the purified ferritin is highly bio-available and it now comes to about 20 pence per average requirement [RDI] of iron for women”.

She says it would probably be too expensive to add to breakfast cereals, and anti-nutrients naturally present in cereals may inhibit iron uptake. But as supplement for pregnant women (instead of sulphate tablets, which can have nasty side effects) or added to baby food, the price would be well worth a fit and healthy baby – especially considering that iron deficiency has a disproportionately heavy burden on pregnant women and infants in developing countries, contributing to 20% of all maternal deaths.

8. Sensitive to fat? Don’t absorb it!

It’s great to see that butter is again outselling margarine (at least in the UK) but all that saturated fat certainly doesn’t help the waistline with the Brits dubbed the ‘fat man of Europe’.

If only there was a way to take a pill and make it all better, like in sci-fi films. Well, it turns out there could be. Adding alginate, a compound from brown seaweeds, to food reduces by up to 80% the activity of an enzyme called pancreatic lipase that accounts for 80% of all fat digestion. And if you don’t digest the fat you can’t absorb it on your waistline, or wherever it ends up on your body.

The BBSRC-funded research is led by Dr Matthew Wilcox at the Pearson lab at Newcastle University has shown that alginate (a dietary fibre extracted from brown seaweed) can reduce the activity of pancreatic lipase by up to 80%.

“We have completed several pilot human trails, enough to secure interest from a large alginate manufacture keen to invest in further large scale human trials,” says Wilcox, adding that larger human trials are needed to allow health claims regarding weight management.

Wilcox says the addition of alginate to foods can create ‘diet’ product without affecting their quality (‘cos fat tastes nice), which could be crucial in countering the trend that has led to 61% of people in the UK being overweight or obese. And alginates are already used in ice creams and salad creams, so with safety all but assured products could be in shelves in a couple of years.


9. Purple tomatoes and other psychedelic fruit and veg

Did you know that carrots used to be purple? And other varieties are white? The orangeness was selected for by breeders because it was a colour people liked. Now after eating dull and tasteless iceberg lettuce varieties for years, people are hungry for colourful red leaves like chard and beet.

And it doesn’t stop there. “Purple carrots are slowly coming into fashion, helped by recommendations from celebrity chefs. Of course we now have red sprouts available at Christmas time, and then there is purple cauliflower, Purple Majesty potatoes and blood oranges as well,” says Professor Cathie Martin from JIC.

Martin has a keen interest in funny-coloured veg, because she’s genetically engineered a purple tomato that is higher in levels of compounds called anthocyanins, which give other purple fruit like blueberries, blackberries their colour. And like healthy berries, the purple tomatoes have potential health benefits such as anti-inflammatory properties, and have been shown to slow the progression of soft-tissue carcinoma in cancer-prone mice. They also have double the shelf life, which can help reduce food waste.

“The research on high-anthocyanin purple tomatoes is currently at the stage where we have very new and exciting data on their positive effects on atherosclerosis in preclinical studies,” says Martin. “The data from our preclinical studies support undertaking studies in humans, and we are preparing to notify the Food and Drug Administration in the USA of our purple tomato juice.” She adds that if the FDA consider the juice product is safe for human consumption, a purple tomato juice product could be available in the US in about two years.

And if initially oddly-coloured foods are shown to be safe and effective, perhaps people will warm to even more psychedelic varieties – whether created using GM or conventional breeding.

So the future is bright, the future is… purple!


10. Food that won’t make you (or other animals) so sick

Nothing ruins a good meal like seeing it again; ejecting it from your own body that loved the taste so much just a few hours ago.

Copyright: Quinn Comendant on Flickr by CC 2.0
Vaccines and precision breeding could reduce the food poisoning burden for humans and animals. Copyright: Quinn Comendant on Flickr by CC 2.0

So can scientists make the food of the future any safer to eat? Around 351,000 people die from food poisoning globally each year (420,000 in 2010). And although deaths are rare in developed countries, the toll from illness puts a massive strain on healthcare services – Campylobacter bacteria alone are estimated to cost the UK economy £900M a year.

Some of the main food poisoning culprits are bacteria from poultry. “We aim to breed for resistance and devise vaccines for Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli infections in farmed animals to reduce the incidence of foodborne infections in humans,” says Professor Mark Stevens from The Roslin Institute. “Some types of these organisms also cause severe enteric and systemic diseases in farmed animals, so the same strategies can reduce losses in production and improve animal health and welfare.”

Does this have to involve genetic engineering? Not necessarily, says Stevens. “The more conventional route we are using, with notable successes, involves identifying genes associated with resistance to inform marker-assisted selection in breeding programmes.” He believes that the revolution in genome analysis, including the ability to inexpensively sequence the genomes of thousands of animals, will greatly improve the accuracy of selection for disease resistance and other traits, and play a key role in improving yields in developing countries.

At Roslin, conventional techniques have already reduced the number of salmon lost to infectious pancreatic necrosis (IPN), thanks to the discovery of the gene responsible for resistance to the disease. This has saved jobs and contributed millions in revenue to Scotland’s £600M salmon farming industry.

11. Enhancing animal feeds for better, more sustainable human nutrition

Copyright: Patrick Alexander on Flick by CC 2.0
Camelina, a relative of oilseed rape, can be engineered to produce ‘fish oils’ for aquaculture. Copyright: Patrick Alexander on Flickr by CC 2.0

Did you know that the omega-3 ‘fish oils’ that have been shown to have health benefits aren’t made from fish? The fish obtain them from eating algae and plankton, which passes up the food chain into the species we consume like tuna or mackerel. But farmed fish such as salmon are fed food pellets containing fish oils derived from wild fish stocks, which kind of takes away the whole point of farming fish – it was supposed to take pressure off wild fish populations. Looking into the future where 10 billion people are told to eat at least two portions per week, this just isn’t sustainable.

How, then, to keep higher omega-3 levels in farmed fish without over exploiting wild fish stocks? Although many plants also have omega-3 fatty acids they aren’t the same long-chain type derived from marine sources. So scientists at Rothamsted Research, an institute that receives strategic funding from BBSRC, have genetically modified Camelina plants to produce the key fatty acids (EPA and DHA) as you’d find in marine omega-3 fish oils. And it works.

“We are now optimising the fatty acid profile of our GM camelina oil to make it an even closer match with bona fide fish oils,” says Professor Johnathan Napier, who leads the research at Rothamsted. “On the basis of our field trials at Rothamsted, we are now confident that our GM camelina will perform well in the ‘real world’”. There are many regulatory, safety and approval steps yet to take, but Napier says novel plant-based sources of omega-3 fish oils might be available for the aquafeed industry in the next five years.

It is generally agreed that the most effective way for our bodies to assimilate these fatty acids is as part of a whole food, rather than as a supplement or tablet. So if the approach works in aquaculture, Napier thinks it could be used in other foods in the future. “It could be used to enrich other animals such as pigs and poultry, as well as their products such as eggs for increased delivery of omega-3s into the human diet,” he says. Watch a video about the process.

Copyright: CSIRO
Resistant starch makes it all the way to the large intestine and becomes food for your friendly gut bacteria. Copyright: CSIRO

12. You cannot resist resistant starch

It’s easy to eye a headline containing the words ‘resistant starch’ and wonder if its just the latest food fad. After all, starch is starch – the stuff in carbs – isn’t it?

Well, no. “There is much evidence that diets rich in a type of carbohydrate called resistant starch have a positive impact on control of blood glucose levels, insulin response and hence reduce susceptibility to type 2 diabetes,” says Professor Peter Wilde of the Institute of Food Research (IFR), which receive strategic funding from BBSRC.

Resistant starch escapes digestion in upper parts of the digestive tract (small intestine), and is fermented by bacteria in the colon. Some products of fermentation, known as short-chain fatty acids, are thought to improve insulin secretion of beta-cells in the pancreas, useful in the fight against type 2 diabetes. UK diets are generally low in resistant starch, which are found in green bananas, raw potato starch, sweet potatoes and in other cereals and pulses.

Wilde’s team is studying the features of starch that are important in making it resistant to digestion and therefore allowing it to improve beta-cell function. “Our study will make use of peas from the John Innes Centre known to contain different types of resistant starch. The peas will be prepared in different ways, and digested in an artificial gut, allowing us to assess which features of the starch and the food are important for maximum fermentation in the colon,” says Wilde.

Selected types of peas will also be fed to human volunteers at Imperial College London, and a full spectrum of short- and medium-term physiological responses monitored. Wilde says that in the future, this could inform crop breeders of which genes in crop plants are associated with the types of starch that provide the best protection against type 2 diabetes.


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: food GM innovation video feature