By Chelsey Keith P. Ignacio, Special Features and Content Senior Writer
Everyone deserves a food on their plate, and a nutritious and sufficient one at that. But for many people, having the recommended amount of food and nutrients per day can be a challenge.
Apart from the lingering issue concerning nutrition, there are also problems with unsustainability in food production and processing, which not only affect the availability of food but also impact the planet. Innovations, however, can play a part to make food and its processing nutritious and sustainable.
Tackling these issues concerning food and the technologies serving as solutions are the focus of Kristine Go, general manager for nutrition at Unilever Southeast Asia, in her presentation on “Reinventing Food for Humanity” during the BusinessWorld Economic Forum last May 25.
“By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet,” stressed Ms. Go, “and the reality is, our planet cannot feed that 10 billion people.”
This potential concern for the future is rooted in the limited type of plants and animals being consumed today. According to Ms. Go, only 12 plants and five animals made up 75% of the food that people intake, despite having a lot of types of produce and crops in the world.
“The problem with this is that it actually affects the soil. When people produce the same amount of vegetables and meat because that’s what we consume, it actually depletes our resources. That’s why there’s not enough food to feed the 10 billion people that will be inhabiting this Earth by 2050. So 50% of our soil has actually been lost. It’s been lost because it uses the same amount of nutrients,” Ms. Go explained.
“So, unless we actually rotate and unless we eat more or we diversify our diet, we actually end up destroying the soil. We end up using more water, we end up destroying the climate,” she said.
The food being produced at present is responsible for 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions, added Ms. Go.
For Unilever’s part in responding to the aforementioned situation, Ms. Go shared some of the company’s commitments for 2025, which involved investing €1.5 billion of its business to be made out of plant-based food. The company is also putting importance on providing positive nutrition; halving the food waste from its manufacturing until it reaches homes; and cutting down salt, sugar, and fat.
“At the center of all of these is regenerative agriculture,” she said.
“While we are in the business of nutrition, there is such a strong link between nutrition, innovation, and technology, and the way it actually affects the diets that we have,” she highlighted.
Technologies for food
Several technologies are being utilized nowadays to bring nutritious food for the people, as well as bring sustainability in the process and protect the environment.
People talk about sustainable agriculture, but it’s now evolved to regenerative agriculture.
— KRISTINE GO, General Manager – Nutrition, UNILEVER SOUTHEAST ASIA
Food manufacturers have been adding nutrients to food products through fortification.
“Because oftentimes it’s a lot harder to change people’s diets and habits, we try to change our products. Fortification exists already in a lot of products today,” Ms. Go said.
Among Unilever’s products that underwent fortification, according to the general manager, are Knorr cubes, which are fortified with iron as the Philippines deals with iron deficiency.
“And you may not know it — and we don’t talk about it because we all know that when it comes to food — we just want to talk about how delicious it is. And that’s why the onus is on us as companies to actually change the products that we give because our people need it,” said Ms. Go.
Technology is also used to produce plant-based meat products and make their texture and taste like that of actual meat.
“I know that we all want to eat healthy. But oftentimes, it’s very hard to say no to a beef burger or steak. And that’s why there are new protein solutions that actually, in a way, mimic and create texture that is similar to meat not only the taste, but also the texture,” shared Ms. Go.
Pancake House and Burger King are among the restaurant and fast-food companies that have begun to offer plant-based meat.
Meat products are being improved by technology as well in terms of producing more by imitating the fibrous texture of meat with the help of high moisture extrusion.
“It’s a concentrated solution towards giving you more meat… Even if normally, let’s say, a kilo of beef or pork creates eight patties, with this product, a concentrated meat powder, it actually increases it (patties created) by 50%. So, your ordinary one kilo of pork, which produces eight patties of meat, can now make 12,” Ms. Go explained.
Meanwhile, in terms of processing, digitalization helps provide transparency and efficiency in manufacturing. A manufacturing site that digitalizes everything end-to-end is what the World Economic Forum (WEF) call as lighthouse factories, said Ms. Go.
“Everything from dispensing to manufacturing to the movement of raw materials from one end to the production side is now digitized. And it helps all of us because it actually creates less waste. It also makes our production systems more efficient,” she said.
“Having a digitized factory allows you for better traceability, better efficiency, and to be more cost-effective,” she added.
Unilever currently has around six factories across the world that have been recognized as lighthouse factories by the WEF, according to Ms. Go.
Packaging should also be paid attention to when it comes to sustainability in food processing.
Hellmann’s, a Unilever mayonnaise brand, is also creating a bottle that would be able to denote the temperature of the refrigerator.
“This bottle tells you the right amount of temperature that’s required for your refrigerator,” Ms. Go explained. “So, this is quite a cool technology because the label that you have on pack changes color. It changes color when the temperature is too low or too high. It just gives you an optimal amount of temperature that obviously helps our planet as well.”
Meanwhile, on the side of agriculture, there is a system called regenerative agriculture, which seeks to rehabilitate the soil and protect the environment.
“People talk about sustainable agriculture, but it’s now evolved to regenerative agriculture,” said Ms. Go. “Regenerative agriculture is five things. It helps our soil; it’s less water; it’s better for the climate, so less greenhouse gases, so more net zero. It’s also good for biodiversity, the animals, the insects, that are around the farm. And finally, it’s better for livelihoods.”
An example of this is the creation of dwarf coconut trees in Indonesia and dwarf tamarind trees in the Philippines, shared Ms. Go, which makes it easier to harvest the yields than climbing the trees at their usual height.
She also shared that Unilever’s plantation in Pampanga has five to six feet of dwarf tamarind trees, along with life-size tamarind trees that could grow up to 30 feet.
Capping off the presentation, Ms. Go also showed Unilever’s Hive, the company’s foods innovation center at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. The campus is dubbed as the “Silicon Valley of Food.”