Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto where they were holding the 4th Annual Health Professionals Forum which focused on Food Innovations for Health. The sponsors of this event included Soy 20/20, George Brown College, Council for Biotechnology Information, Dietitians of Canada and others. The purpose of this conference is to link research and new food technology throughout the entire agri- food chain. More importantly, the conference is trying to link new food innovation in farming practises with health professionals, consumers and retailers. There were some great speakers ranging from Registered Dieticians to directors of new technologies in consumer foods for major Canadian companies.
The opening speaker was Alison Duncan PhD. RD from the University of Guelph, who discussed functional food consumption in older adults. I thought that this was a very important topic to look at simply because it brings up a common gap between academia and industry. Is the information we are gathering actually applicable to real life? Professor Duncan looked at whether or not older adults are actually consuming these functional foods that the industry and researchers are creating. This is a perfect example of how research, retailers and consumers can be working together to create products that targeted consumers will actually use.
The next two speakers Dr. John Kelly and Kim Arrey RD from the Council for Biotechnology Information focused on new agricultural innovations that will help to feed the world as we move from 7 billion currently to 9 billion people in the year of 2042. Dr. Kelly stated that the land that once fed two people will increasingly need to feed five people because of the growing population. This statistic really resonated with me because it made me realize without biotechnology we will not be able to feed the world. Some people are uneasy when it comes to biotechnology, genetically modified (GM), and genetically engineered food, but that is simply because most consumers do not know what it is. Scientists and producers have been using GM foods for a long time through selective breeding in plants and animals. A long time ago a man named Gregor Mendel (1820 to 1884) discovered how certain traits are passed on from parents to offspring. He did this through selective breeding, the only difference now with genetic modification is that scientists can isolate specific genes that they want to be expressed and make sure the plant or animal has it. Through selective breeding and genetic modification farmers have been able to increase their yields, this is important since the number of farmers in Canada is decreasing. For example, in corn, genetic modification has increased stock strength and has also made them more resistant to pests; which ultimately has allowed farmers to increase productivity. This is important especially now that in North America a large percent of the population does not grow its own food, or know what goes into making the food consumed. Without these scientific advances, the producers (farmers) we have would not be able to supply enough food to support the growing population.
The last speaker was Colin Farnum who discussed the challenges of sodium reduction, another very important topic. Colin is the Senior Director of Innovation and New Technologies at Maple Leaf Consumer Foods. Sodium reduction in food has become a hot topic in the media and continues to be a growing concern for consumers. Consumers may think that taking sodium out of products is an easy task, but as always, things are easier said than done. Farnum highlights the issues of sodium reduction not only in meat but also in cheese and bread. Sodium is an important component in producing products as it affects the safety, texture and taste of the foods you enjoy. For food safety, sodium reduces the amount of free water in a product (water that bacteria loves) so that food borne illness is less likely to occur. Sodium also has this great habit of binding water so that it can keep the moisture inside your meat, making it more palatable to consumers who want a juicy cut of meat. Lastly, texture and processing, Farnum points out that without salt, bread becomes sticky making it hard to work with. This sticky dough can block the machines making the dough and thus make a serious mess.
I guess my take away message here is make sure to educate yourself on why these new technologies are so important. There has been a fear instilled about these food issues into the public, but if you take the time to really understand the reasoning behind these new innovations you will realize that these researchers, companies, and producers are simply trying to meet the demands of more and more consumers who are requesting quality products. Not only will the demand for food increase but arable land will decrease as big cities expand to house more people. This will lead to less productive land to grow these crops. So you see, without these new innovations producers would simply not be able to feed the world.