A New Era of Food Production and Nutrition

As demand for resource-intensive food production continues to rise in a time when resources are increasingly constrained, ways of producing and consuming food will need to adapt. Still, many foods hold personal meaning and consumers find them hard to give up. Thus, there is a case for finding new ways to produce the foods we know and love. Everything from (or bio-)printed salmon, to cell-cultured steaks, chicken, coffee, and chocolate are already commercially available or under development. When it comes to these technologies, it appears we are only just seeing the beginnings of what is possible. However, while calls for responsible production have been echoed around the world, possible impacts of these foods on human health are not always clear.

New routes from farm to fork
Before talking about nutrition, let’s consider how 3D-printed and cell cultured foods are made. There is lots of variation between producers in terms of processes and ingredients but, on a basic level, bioprinting involves the use of food “inks”, extrusion technology, and computer systems to assemble complex food structures. Cell-cultured foods are produced by isolating cells via tissue biopsies, and then growing these cells in nutrient-rich media before differentiating them into their respective tissues. The resulting amorphous biomass then gets structured into the final product, which may involve combining multiple types of cellular tissues, such as fat or connective tissue, that have each individually undergone the same processes. In some cases, cellular biomass gets combined with other ingredients, such as plant proteins, to reduce costs and/or to improve texture. Ultimately, cell culture and bioprinting are complementary tools that can be used to reconstruct a complex food matrix.

Zooming in on the beef matrix
You may have heard about the concept of the food matrix. Essentially, this means there is more to foods than meets the eye (and our taste buds). The food matrix encompasses everything that characterizes a food, ranging from individual components to how these elements combine into complex structures. What are all the compounds present? How do they interact with one another? How are components located in relation to one another? How hard or soft is the food? How big are any lipid droplets present? How solid are these droplets? The list goes on.

Beef is an excellent example of a complex food matrix, and it is worth considering further because of the environmental case to reconstruct it without the cow. Through cell culture and bioprinting, it is becoming increasingly possible to create products that look remarkably like beef, taste like beef, chew like beef, and perhaps eventually cost the same or less than beef. However, it remains imperative to note that these alternative products are not nutritionally identical to beef. It is an immense challenge to recapitulate every aspect of a food matrix by combining their individual components. Beef, for example, is made up of many components: essential amino acids, fatty acids, structural tissues (e.g., collagen and elastin), vitamins (e.g., B6 and B12), minerals (e.g., zinc, iron, selenium), and other lesser-known nutrients (e.g., creatine, carnosine, squalene, etc.). This list is a mere fragment of the diverse array of nutrients present. Moreover, these can be packaged into unique structures, such as the iron-containing heme protein. Such structures are additionally distributed in a heterogeneous fashion, creating pockets of vitamins, lipids, and protein. New technologies, including cell culturing and bioprinting, present exciting opportunities to closely model many of the characteristics of existing foods, but the food matrix is difficult to imitate. Thus, it is worth considering from a nutritional perspective how important true imitation really is.

Nutrition: More than the sum of its parts
Recognizing that foods are incredibly complex is fundamental to fully understanding their nutrition and health associations. Emerging research makes a strong case that the influence of the food matrix can lead foods with even identical composition to behave differently in the body. Moreover, ingredients can differentially impact human physiology, depending on what other foods and nutrients are consumed at the same time. For example, the digestion of saturated fat differs depending on whether it is consumed alone or with calcium-rich dairy because of insoluble complexes that form with the fatty acids, thus reducing lipid absorption. The size of lipid droplets can influence how efficiently digestive enzymes can release fatty acids for further packaging and absorption into the bloodstream. The hardness of a food influences how quickly it is consumed, which can also impact how much we end up eating at a meal. When proteins are delivered alongside certain plant compounds, including polyphenols, molecular interactions can alter protein digestibility. How much a protein is heated can additionally influence the strength of these attractions.

Thus, the above-mentioned and various other processes collectively influence multiple aspects of digestion physiology. They can influence what nutrients get absorbed, how quickly absorption occurs, what is fermented by our gut microbiome, what metabolites are subsequently produced, and how our bodies respond as a result. Consequently, while the information on a nutrition label indicates a food’s nutritional value, it tells an incomplete story in relation to health. When it comes to food manufacturing and product development, this means there is more to developing a functional food than to simply meet nutrient content targets. This consideration brings us back to the question of how closely novel foods need to replicate traditional products. The food matrix is clearly important, and it seems reasonable that consumers will often tend to expect that foods resembling a traditional product (e.g., beef) should have similar or improved nutritional properties. But let’s acknowledge that, even between seemingly similar products, equivalency is not assured. Extensive nutrition research is necessary to make these comparisons.

The challenges of nutrition research
The prospect of cell-cultured and bioprinted foods represents a paradigm shift in how we think about producing and formulating foods. Many whole, unprocessed foods have the benefit of being backed by decades of nutritional research, including multiple experimental models, (e.g., bench top studies, animal models, large-scale clinical trials, and prospective cohort studies). Each research model provides complementary information, despite limitations. For example, animal models can help to quickly evaluate the potential long-term impacts of consuming certain foods or diets, but those results may not translate to humans. Meanwhile, prospective cohort studies in humans provide long-term associations (i.e., 10 or more years) between food or diet consumption and health, but a diverse array of confounding lifestyle factors limits the ability to prove causality of health outcomes to the consumption of a particular food. Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard in health research, but they are costly, and it is tough to study health effects in a free-living population over a sufficient timespan for validated disease risk biomarkers to significantly change. As a result, the strongest nutritional evidence comes from combining information from different models to evaluate the totality of evidence related to the consumption of a food. Research evidence is inherently more limited for novel food products and is lacking in long-term follow-up data. It will be important to pursue clinical trials to support nutrient-centric research and to ensure that any effects resulting specifically from the food matrix are validated.

Challenges meet opportunities
As our understanding of the food matrix and nutrition grows, it will become possible to apply technologies, like bioprinting and cell culturing, to selectively add or exclude specific compounds from a final product. It may be possible, for instance, to develop an alternative product with an improved nutritional profile over beef (e.g., lower saturated fat), while matching the traditional product’s taste, texture, and price. In this case, nutrition could present a competitive advantage over conventional beef or between alternative products. There is also great interest in personalized or precision nutrition. Bioprinting presents the opportunity to precisely tailor the nutrient profile to meet the unique targets of an individual, (e.g., medical diets in long-term care facilities or remote locations). The food industry should play a proactive role in transforming both food production and population health by conducting and supporting clinical nutrition research. Novel technologies present challenges, but also incredible opportunities to usher in a new era of palatable, sustainable, culturally relevant, and highly nutritious food products.

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