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Plant-Based Meat, New Processing, Big Data Changing the Food Industry

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

Are you ready for chicken tenders that taste and chew like the real thing, even though they’re made from plant protein without a bit of chicken? A Triangle-based company, Improved Nature, already has them and other plant-based meat-like products on the market.

That was only one of the advanced food technologies discussed by a panel of innovators at the North Carolina Professional Ag Biotech forum Wednesday at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Others included:

Advanced microwave food processing technology developed by Raleigh-based SinnovaTek that makes shelf stable products that do not suffer the loss of freshness and nutrients common to older processing methods.

Big data analysis of the entire food chain from “farm to fork” that provides greater safety, transparency, and incident and recall management from Durham’s FoodLogiQ.

And vertical farming indoors, which uses no soil and less water, increases food safety and minimizes pest control problems. Other panelists weighed in on the advantages of vertical farming, noting it change the agriculture equation.

Andy Kennedy, co-founder FoodLogiQ, which says its mission is to “Map the world’s food chain, make it as safe as possible and empower people to make informed decisions about the food they eat,” said the next level of the job is like “a Four-dimensional chess challenge.”

Kennedy noted that “Food is really fashion,” to consumers, rather than something scientific. “They have a strong emotional response to what’s on the label,” he said.

His company is changing a process that used to take months of collecting information from a food supply chain to a “real-time activity.” A lot of the information is bar-coded by the growers and manufacturers then scanned in kitchens and delivered wirelessly to consumer cell phones.

Kennedy, who said FoodLogiQ chose to locate in Durham rather than in Atlanta or elsewhere because of its university system, tech corridor, and quality of life, suggested that North Carolina should “Think about branding NC around food and agriculture.”

Agriculture is the state’s largest business at $84 billion annually and “Has a lot of cool things, from Kannapolis (home of the NC Research Campus dedicated to food research); and resources in the RTP, the Triad, and the Research Triangle.” In addition, its location is a “Huge hub for distribution.”

“We should bring them all together with investors from out-of-state to see what we have in NC,” he said.

Kennedy also brought up vertical farming, a method of growing plants indoors with no soil and less water that “Is some 300 times more productive than standard acre farming of land. “Once you develop the technology, you can do it anywhere on the planet,” he said. “It can bring down the cost of high-quality nutrition and may be a better alternative for developing countries with water or resource scarcity.”

Kennedy also noted that replacing meat with plant protein “Is dramatically more efficient and we are on a glide-path to how we are going to produce more food with plants rather than animals.”

Lab Chops from Improved Nature

David Swintosky, CFO of Improved Nature, a company already selling meat-like products made from plant protein, said “Alternative proteins are a sustainable alternative to animal meat.”

Improved nature is a business to business company that sells its products to K-12 school systems, hospitals and other bulk buyers.

Swintosky noted that millennials now have greater buying power than the baby boomer generation and their buying habits represent “A huge shift in behavior.”

There is a “Lot of excitement around lab-grown meat,” he said. “The basic ingredients are water and protein.” Improved Nature’s product realigns plant proteins to behave like muscle fibers. It behaves remarkably like meat.”

He says the company, which sees a strong demand for its products, has raised $100 million and paved the way for consumer acceptance.

“Our goal is to feed the world with high-quality food products,” he said.

Josip Simunovic, CSO and a founder of SinnovaTek, which developed the high heat microwave system that makes foods long-life shelf-stable without reducing nutrients and retaining fresh taste, noted that his company tries to “Bridge the gap between processed foods and safety, taste, and nutrition."

Older technology processed foods, canned soups, for instance, tend to taste alike. “The flavor and nutrients are gone,” he said. The only way to fix that is via technology, he added.

His company and its divisions use high temperature microwave processing to preserve the native flavor and nutrition of food products while providing long, unrefrigerated shelf life. You have probably used coffee creamers and other products made via the firm’s technology.

Laura Lee, business recruitment manger for food processing with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina moderated the panel discussion.


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