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Nestlé researchers prepare to discover whether consumers will like reformulated cereal. (Nestec S.A., Nestlé Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland)

Can Technology Save Breakfast?

Cereal companies, maligned for overprocessing, are now using the same techniques to put some nature back in the bowl

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In the center of what looks like an operating room in an ambulatory-care center, a research subject lies on a stretcher with his head encased in a big clear plastic box with tubes coming out of it. The machine gauges how the body burns fat after eating different foods by measuring the carbon dioxide a person breathes through his mouth and nose and even releases from his skin. There are clinic-like rooms where subjects sleep after eating meals prepared in a high-tech kitchen and rooms with exercise equipment to measure performance after eating certain foods (“We make PowerBars,” says a company communications specialist, Hilary Green, herself a Ph.D). In one lab was a shiny red plastic elastic cap that looked like a high-tech shower cap. Very high tech: It’s spotted with amoeba-shaped holders for electrodes that measure electrical activity in the brain, perhaps useful in testing whether, for instance, a product with reduced salt evokes the same response as the conventionally salted product.

In another lab, flasks of cloudy, light-colored liquid are bubbling on stainless steel heaters, each flask containing a different fermented vegetable. It smells like a big sauerkraut maker, which is more or less what it is: The liquids contain different fermenting agents like lacto­bacillus, historically used to preserve and flavor foods like sauerkraut and sausage, which break foods like onions, garlic and tomatoes into “flavor precursors” that could in turn be used to enhance soups and sauces—in essence, using precise means to create natural rather than synthesized flavor concentrates. “We want to use the intrinsic potential of raw materials,” Christelle Schaffer-Lequart, a researcher in the lab’s bioprocessing group, told me.

The area of experimentation that most caught my interest uses enzymes to break down whole grains and cereals into easier-to-digest powders that can be sneaked into foods like cake mixes and light breads in which whole grains would be unpalatably heavy, and into foods where you’d never expect to find them: soups, sauces, puddings and creamy fillings that already have starch in some form. “Why not whole-grains starch?” asked Monica Fischer, head of the food science and technology department. Breaking down the grains can also create sweetness, which raises the possibility of substituting whole grains for sugar in certain products. I saw packages of two Peruvian cereal drinks: Ecco and Nesquik, both marked “con cereales Andinos” (containing Andean cereals), including corn, quinoa and amaranth. Those and other grains from affiliates in South America and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, are being studied to understand how and whether they can be extruded into pasta and noodles and used in place of northern European wheat.

Because the research is basic, Nestlé doesn’t know yet which of its hundreds of food businesses will apply its findings—the actual testing of products takes place in 300 “application groups” around the world. But Nestlé already buys locally grown grains in the U.S. and Canada and will likely increase the percentage. Not long from now we might find Stouffer’s turkey tetrazzini with whole grains in both the noodles and the sauce; one of those cereal drinks on a local supermarket shelf; amaranth in a health drink; and more fiber and whole grains in Purina pet food, a big part of Nestlé business. (Nestlé won’t talk about its future marketing plans.) Or whole-grain Kit Kats, which Nestlé has already marketed in England. Or Buitoni quinoa fusilli, which the rising number of gluten-intolerant people will certainly welcome. But will Ecuadoreans?

The research I saw at the world’s largest and sixth-largest food companies will, of course, come at a price. Processing, even to restore a food’s natural ingredients or not remove them in the first place, always adds to a food’s cost. Another potential threat of the new food research is that these products could co-opt traditional markets, like the ones for quinoa and amaranth, and begin to erase native foods, which can be made for a fraction of the cost and have been shown for millennia to be healthful and practical. And there are plenty of other costs I’m leaving out: the treatment of labor, the environmental costs of packaging and transport, the general destruction of small businesses as large corporations grab local markets with lower prices and often bad-for-you food, deceptive claims and advertising, the checkered political history of all these companies.

But if huge corporations able to finance basic research don’t build the kind of centers Nestlé has, government won’t. Sputnik caused a technology-research revolution financed by massive government investment, often in partnership with private industry. The cold war gave us the Internet and GPS and a slew of electronic devices we rely on. As for comparable leaps forward in food—well, we got Tang.

Locally raised food, which I hasten to say governments and consumers should strongly support, won’t meet the needs of the developing world. Or the world of time- and money-pressed American working families. But lowering the price of and improving the quality of packaged foods can help people eat better and weigh less. And, without a focused government investment in research or a retooled farm bill that favors health-minded farmers and food producers—both of which seem unlikely—those initiatives will be left to the seldom philanthropic free market.

As part of its commitment to lowering sodium and sugars in private-label foods, Wal-Mart also committed to eliminating the premium its consumers usually pay for whole-grains foods and fresh vegetables. That move jibes with the main finding of “It’s Dinnertime,” a recent national survey of American low-income families conducted principally by Share Our Strength, the national hunger-relief organization: Low-income families cook and eat at home much more often than is popularly supposed; the single biggest barrier to their doing it more is the cost of food.

But I did see and taste hope for a better nutritional future. Nestlé is working to simplify the ingredients in some of its popular foods, taking out everything artificial and all preservatives and limiting the ingredients on the label to five recognizable components. OK, the first product line it began to overhaul was Häagen-Dazs, but it was a start. Next is...Coffee-Mate, hardly a health food, but a product practically everyone uses, horrifying as the ingredient list has always been; the new Natural Bliss line is made with milk, cream, sugar and natural flavors. (We’ll save the discussion of “natural,” maybe the most misused word on a label, for another day.)

And in the Nestlé flasks, I smelled not just “sauerkraut” but the potential for re-naturing foods. I also heard about preservation and pathogen-killing treatments that can do the same thing: ultra-high pressure, at low temperatures, that can kill pathogens without denaturing flavorful bacteria as does the current, hated-by-foodies ultra-high pasteurization. Already pressure is used to kill viruses and other pathogens in oysters, preserving texture, liquid and flavor far better than pasteurization. The potential for long-life milk and cheeses that actually taste, well, natural, is large.

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