Precision food design - tackling rising food demand and malnutrition
Food Healthcare

About 1 billion people consume too few calories, at least 3 billion don’t get enough nutrients and over 2.5 billion consume too much.1 This is known as the triple burden of malnutrition. What approaches and technologies might potentially ease these huge global burdens for human health?

Availability and affordability of energy-rich foods across the growing global middle class can result in simultaneous calorie overconsumption and undernourishment. The existence of ‘food deserts’ with limited availability to affordable and nutritious food have been mapped both in urban and rural areas in the United States. But interesting new developments might come to our rescue.

From personal nutrition to nutrigenetics

National and international public health authorities have long aspired to provide guidance and recommendations to populations under their mandate on appropriate diets and their composition, based on best current knowledge. Tailoring of the advice has been limited to specific groups defined by their health, behaviour or physical conditions, ranging from weight to inborn metabolic disorders. This trend has developed further towards advice tailored to individuals, through an approach known as ‘personalized nutrition’. Quick and cheap DNA analyses in combination with biochemical testing can now add additional information layers to an individual’s genetic background, and the interaction of these layers with the individual’s response to dietary interventions. This approach, known as nutrigenetics can be combined with other personalized nutrition approaches to encourage health-promoting dietary choices.2 As nutrigenetics is applicable to both sick and healthy individuals and through the daily activity of eating, if employed at scale, it offers huge potential and opportunity for public health and markets. However, the scientific and genetic knowledge basis for nutritional decision making is still in its infancy.

Many commercial players have taken the opportunity to target consumers with interventions which are not verified or validated in a marketplace that has so far lacked transparency, regulatory oversight, standards and consumer protection (Ordovas). For this technological approach to have a sizeable impact on diet and health by 2030, measures must be taken to counter these concerns. That includes consensus guidelines for specific conditions, such as those focussing on the prevention and management of chronic diseases associated with obesity.3

Protein-rich plants replacing meat

An alternative consideration to the composition of foods with large environmental and health implications is the source of these foods, in particular proteins. Despite being both energy dense and micronutrient-rich source of protein, the combination of growing global demand for meat from both developed and developing economies and the environmental cost of its production through greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater and arable land use is unsustainable. This has led to the exploration and a burst of innovation of alternative sources of protein with smaller environmental footprints, where one analysis estimates that almost 30% of ‘meat’ in 2030 is estimated to come from non-animal sources4.

Protein-rich plants such as lentils and beans have traditionally been a part of diets in many geographies, extending to more processed plant-based protein products such as soya-derived tofu. Food technologies have also pivoted to produce protein specifically, for example through fungal fermentation to generate mycoprotein used to produce the meat substitute Quorn. Further consumer-driven refinements have led to plant-based products such as Beyond Meat, such as the Impossible Burger Heme, containing molecules that more closely mimic the experience of eating meat. On the horizon is protein production by lab-based culturing of mammalian cells – cow or chicken for example – where the industry is working hard to establish methods and conditions amenable to scale-up. There is also a growing focus on protein from insects that can be bred on low-value feed that is today not used for livestock. The protein from insects can then either be used for direct consumption or processed into flour. Developments within biorefineries enable an interesting opportunity for feed-production from sustainable biomass such as algae and wood.5

The environmental impacts of moving to alternative proteins are potentially significant. For example, beef production alone was responsible for a quarter of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Alternative protein sources will of course have resource and energy requirements in production, some of which may be offset by the shift to renewable energy sources. Health-wise, the effect of moving to any one of ten alternative protein sources has shown, through modelling, to reduce diet-related mortality by 5-7%6, with the caveat that these protein sources are affordable. The extent to which alternative proteins will disrupt the meat industry sector including food manufacturers, livestock and feedstock sectors, will be determined by consumer choices, as well as societal impacts and the way governments choose to react to these. But indications are that non-meat protein sources will form a firm and growing part of the global diet7. Regulatory concerns will also play a crucial role, where verification of many aspects of the value chain – from traceability in food source origin and health claims to sustainability of production methods – have the potential to address issues of scale up, food safety and consumer acceptance, all necessary for large-scale uptake of alternative proteins.


Main author: Sharmini Alagaratnam

Contributors: Marte Rusten; Erik Andreas Hektor

Editor: Per Busk Christiansen

  2. Personalised nutrition and health, BMJ 2018;361:bmj.k2173, Ordovas et al.
  3. Guide for current nutrigenetic, nutrigenomic, and nutriepigenetic approaches for precision nutrition involving the prevention and management of chronic diseases associated with obesity, Ramos-Lopez et al., Nutrigenet. Nutrigenomics 2017;10:43-62
  5. Øverland et al 2018, Marine macroalgae as source of protein and bioactive compounds in feed for monogastric animals. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, DOI 10.1002/jsfa.9143
  6. Meat: the Future series Alternative Proteins, World Economic Forum White Paper 2019
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