Technology touches every facet of our lives, and our food is no different. From growing crops to processing ingredients to preparing delicious meals, food technology plays a key role in the lifecycle of the food we eat. To grow and process tasty and nutritious food on a scale to feed billions of people, nature sometimes needs a little help. That’s where food technology comes in.
What is Food Technology?
While the word “technology” may conjure thoughts of robotics, and computer algorithms nowadays, the definition of food technology isn’t tied to the latest tech innovations of today. Even the process of canning (developed in 1810 by Nicolas Appert) is considered a part of food technology because it uses technology (stoves and containers) to preserve food and make it last longer.
According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), one can define food technology as the application of food science to the various foods we eat, and it includes:
- food selection
- food preservation
- food processing
- food packaging
- food distribution, and
- food usage.
Fields of study related to food technology can include:
- analytical chemistry,
- quality control, and
- food safety management.
Nearly every piece of food you consume has been touched in some way by food technology, even the food you grow yourself. The seeds you plant in your own garden may come from plant varieties that have been bred to yield more crops with less water and sunlight. Or, if you have a little indoor hydroponic garden to grow some herbs on your kitchen counter, that would also be considered food technology.
Food systems represent a massive industry that touches virtually everyone on the planet in some way. Many universities offer diplomas, degrees and certificates in food science and technology and have laboratories where new food technology is developed and tested. Sometimes these laboratories are also owned and run by governments or corporations.
The Importance of Food Technology
Regardless of whether it’s a school, government, food scientist, or corporation developing food tech, the purpose of it is to meet the growing demand for safe and healthy food across the globe. Advancement in food science, food system innovation, and technology leads to:
- reduced plant and crop disease,
- improved food quality,
- safer food consumption,
- a wider variety of food items,
- more affordable food items,
- better food preservation techniques, and
- less food waste.
While the term “processed food” has gained a negative connotation over the last several decades, that is completely undeserved. A large proportion of the general public may think that it refers only to food in boxes that is laden with salt, saturated fat, and preservatives.
But, if we look back to our food technology definition, we can see that processed food refers to just about any food that’s a part of a food system. Even the act of picking an apple, washing it, packing it into a box and shipping it to a grocery store is a process.
Processed food includes:
- soft drinks,
- snack foods,
- frozen foods,
- fresh produce,
- tea and coffee,
- canned products,
- wine and beer, and
- prepared vegetables.
Food technology plays a pivotal role in making all the various processes these foods go through safer, more cost efficient and more energy efficient, from the farm right to your table.
The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security defines food security as: all people, at all times, having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.
Ensuring that supply chain demands are met to have a sufficient global food supply is crucial to keeping developing nations fed.
Making sure everyone in the world has access to safe, nutritious food doesn’t just mean growing more of it. It means converting as much of that freshly grown raw food as possible into wholesome products while using minimum energy consumption and creating minimal waste throughout the supply chain (processing, packaging and distribution) of the food. Food technology is vital to making sure the entire world is food secure.
There is increasing demand for convenient food options like ready-made meals that we essentially just heat and eat, but there is also a growing demand for less salt, saturated fats and trans fats in those same types of meals.
Food science and technology is constantly finding new ways of reducing salt and fat content in our convenience foods while also preserving the usefulness of what salt and fat do for these foods. Salt is key to flavoring these foods, lowering water activity in them, preventing them from spoiling, and increasing stability. Trans fats are important for getting an acceptable texture in them. There is a constant balance going on between lessening the use of salt and fat while finding new formulations that will perform their functions in food.
Developments in Food Technology
Nicolas Appert, a food scientist, is often cited as the father of food science or, at least, the father of canning, as he developed the first canning process in the early 1800s. However, using technology to grow and process food goes back much further than that.
Preserving food products with salt, for example, can be traced back to 2000 BC in Egypt. And using hydroponics for growing food without the use of dirt also dates back thousands of years, although William Frederick Gericke, a plant nutritionist with the University of California, is often cited as the modern father of hydroponics and coined the term in the 1930s.
Dr. Diana Maricruz Perez-Santos, with the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico City, says food science and technology have been present throughout human history. In her opinion, food science and technology started when humans transitioned from nomadic to agricultural lifestyles, which facilitated practices like growing fruit, domesticating cattle and other animals, and farming.
As human civilization expanded, the first processed food products, like bread and wine, were introduced to prolong the shelf life of raw ingredients by turning them into edible items that lasted longer than the ingredients otherwise would.
Dr. Perez-Santos points to Appert’s invention of canning as a “turning point” in food science and technology, as it allowed for food preservation on a much larger, more industrial scale.
Another notable development in food technology includes the development of the pasteurization process by French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, who discovered that heating items like milk would kill bacteria and make them safer for consumption.
Food Technology Examples
In addition to the many food technology examples we’ve covered so far, there are a lot of modern technologies being used to grow and process our food.
Some more modern examples of food technology would be the various robots that help farmers with activities like weeding, watering, and monitoring the health of crops.
Robots also play a huge role in packing and processing foods. For example, some estimates suggest that, in Europe alone, there are approximately 30,000 robots in the food industry.
Another type of technology that is changing the food industry is software. Like machine learning algorithms, software increases the predictability of crop yields by using data and aids in quality assurance. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence streamlines production lines, making them more efficient.
Quick response (QR) codes are now being used to help track the chain of custody of foods and optimize quality assurance during production. Consumers can scan the QR codes and see every step of that food’s journey from raw ingredient to when they purchase it.
3D printing is another modern form of technology that has made its way into the food industry. NASA astronauts can now 3D print pizzas in space and the technology can also help develop softer foods for people with swallowing disorders.
In addition to robots, drones (together with data technology) are used for precision agriculture, which is the monitoring and management of crop yields, soil levels, and even weather patterns to increase farming efficiency. If, for example, a disease outbreak occurs in a field, farmers can use the technology to manage the outbreak more precisely than they could before.
Software can be used to reduce food waste. For example, the Copia app connects places that need food, like shelters, after-school programs, and other nonprofit organizations,; with businesses that have surplus food.
How Food Technology Benefits Consumers
Food technology provides a myriad of benefits to consumers.
First and foremost is increased food safety. For example, in the Middle Ages, ergotism (poisoning via the ergot fungus) was prevalent in Northern Europe, particularly where rye bread consumption was high. Modern milling techniques – a type of food technology – have largely rendered ergot poisoning a thing of the past.
Consumers also benefit from better quality of food. Food science and technology are used to make foods more nutritious and better tasting, especially the convenient ready-made meals that play a large role in people’s busy modern lives. For example, milder production processes, that use high pressure or steam, better preserve the taste and nutrients in food.
If you have ever kept a can of food for an extended period of time before eating it, you’ve benefited from food technology’s ability to prolong the preservation of food.
As you marvel at the array of different types of food items in your grocery store, you can thank food technology for developing all of them. The 200 varieties of cookies in the cookie aisle? Food technology.
Imagine how limited your diet would be if you could only purchase raw ingredients and had to make everything from scratch.
It also helps cut down on food, energy and general waste by helping to produce food more efficiently, developing more sustainable packaging, and distributing excess food to where it is needed.
From increased food security via new farming methods to less food waste due to more streamlined supply chains, customers benefit greatly from food technology.
How We’re Using Food Technology at Bowery
We like to think of the BoweryOS as the central nervous system for each of our indoor farms. It collects billions of data points through an extensive network of sensors and cameras that feed into proprietary machine-learning algorithms that the BoweryOS interprets in real time.
That means the BoweryOS can pinpoint an arugula plant that needs more light while also identifying and alerting our farmers to a batch of butterhead lettuce that needs harvesting. The machine learning algorithm gets smarter with each growing cycle, meaning the food we grow also improves exponentially.
Because we run completely indoor farms that are not directly affected by the weather, the BoweryOS gives us full control over things like:
- spectra of light,
- photoperiod (day/night cycles),
- intensity of light,
- irrigation schedules,
- humidity, and
Our farmers control all these variables and can adjust them minute by minute, if necessary, to optimize for plant health and, ultimately, flavor. We use the massive amounts of data we receive from our array of cameras and sensors to tweak our growing schedules and optimize our crops for the very best nutrition and flavor.
Food technology has helped humans throughout our history to expand and thrive. For as long as humans have been cooking, growing and preserving our own food, we’ve relied on food technology to help us develop more delicious, nutritious, and bountiful harvests while also being able to keep that food for longer. Food technology will continue to be the most important industry on the planet, as we continue to find new ways to utilize technology to feed the world’s population.