The alarming increase in the number of people who are overweight or obese in Western countries is paradoxically in contrast with the number of starving or undernourished people in developing countries - almost 1.5 billion according to recent estimates. Yet both people in the West and people in developing countries are malnourished, but in the first case because of consumption of nutrient poor junk food and in the second simply owing to lack of food.
Both these issues could be partially solved during food production and preparation by using tailored processing techniques that increase the nutritional value and storage life of food products (and thus increase the possibility of transport and distribution).
One Crop, a Handful of Possibilities
Tailored food processing describes how the final characteristics of food products are affected by technological, geographical, cultural, and economical factors during production. When you think about cooking at home, for example, it is easy to understand how preparing a specific raw material in a different way can produce very dissimilar foodstuffs in terms of sensory and nutritional traits.
With potatoes, you can make boiled potatoes or potato puree by using boiling water or vapour cooking, or potato chips or French fries through the application of a stronger processing step like deep fat frying. Obtaining such different products is possible because the raw material can undergo very different and complex chemical and physical reactions as a consequence of the adopted recipe and processing methods.
How the Nutritional Quality Got Out fo Focus
In addition to the well-known differences between these products in terms of sensory properties, they differ markedly from a nutritional point of view. Although fried potatoes are considered controversial because of their high fat content and the possible presence of heat induced toxicants like acrylamide (which can potentially cause cancer), boiled potatoes are often recommended for ill people or people who have gastric problems.
In the past, technological preparation processes - for example, heat treatment like cooking - were considered to deplete the bioactive constituents in foods, such as antioxidants. However, experiments more recently have shown that processing food activates many reactions. These do not always reduce the nutritional quality of the product but in some cases actually increase their beneficial characteristics.
Fighting the Lack of Certain Nutrients
In terms of food production, lack of logistics and poor maintenance of the cold chain (a low-temperature-controlled supply chain) are the main issues in developing countries. Traditional preservative treatments - for example, air drying, heat sterilisation, and curing with sugar and salt - could be a practical and sustainable approach to obtaining food products that can be stored at ambient temperature, which will extend their shelf life (that is, the period of storage where the quality loss is still tolerable).
These tailored food processing techniques are invasive in terms of the effect they have on the sensory qualities of the raw material. However, in addition to satisfying people’s energy needs, consumption of stabilised food products obtained using these processing steps could guarantee the nutrients often lacking in the diet of developing countries, like vitamins, essential amino acids and fatty acids, and soluble and insoluble fibres.
Applied „Hurdles Technology“
And what about food production in the West? The frenetic lifestyle and the loss of culinary culture in industrialised countries have caused the spread of unhealthy food habits, most notably consumption of junk food. In this context, innovative and convenient high nutritional value fruit and vegetable products - such as fresh cut fruit, smoothies, and minimally processed refrigerated products - could be used to replace commodities high in fat, sugar, and salt, thus reducing the problems and diseases caused by an unhealthy diet.
A lot of technological effort is needed to produce this kind of novel foodstuff, in terms of applying both innovative research findings and technologies developed in the industrial sector. The key is an innovative approach called “hurdles technology”: replacing a single strong stabilising treatment (for example, heat sterilisation) with a combination of several mild processing steps (such as the use of natural preservatives, refrigeration, or modifying the internal atmosphere of the food package). This approach can result in a final product that has the same or even improved sensory and nutritional properties compared with the raw material.
Research performed in the Department of Food Science of Bologna University on fresh cut fruit and vegetables has shown that, in addition to the high convenience of these commodities, in some cases their nutritional value could be even be higher than in the raw material. For instance, coming back to potatoes, recent research has shown that peeling and slicing the tubers before storage can promote a sequence of metabolic events in the injured tissue that can increase the vitamin C and antioxidant content of the vegetable.
Technology transfer, to ensure that scientific and technological developments are available to a wide range of people, and product innovation are key factors in ensuring that tailored food processing can help solve malnutrition both in developing and in Western countries. However, the political support of the international community is essential in order to really solve this crucial and paradoxical phenomenon.