VIDEO: Cargill R&D VP talks ‘processed’ food: ‘All food is made of chemicals’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

To many consumers, ‘processed food’ is just another term for ‘junk food.’ It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it (Twinkies). But do we know a ‘highly processed’ ingredient when we see it, and how much processing is too much? Elaine Watson caught up with Cargill’s VP R&D Dr Chris Mallett at the IFT Show to get his take.

The Dietary Guidelines​ invite Americans to substitute refined​ grains for whole​ grains, eat more fibrous whole​ fruits over fruit juice, and watch our intakes of processed​ meats; but terms such as ‘refined’ and ‘processed’ are not very useful from a nutritional perspective, argued Dr Mallett.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after appearing on a panel debate discussing the pros and cons of ‘processed food,’ on the IFT stage, he said: “Whole grains have more fiber in them​, so if the desire is to get more fiber in the diet, which is very beneficial, there are other ways to do it if you want to… in reality all food is chemicals, and chemicals are relatively unconcerned about the source.

“Our focus is on selling safe, sustainable, healthy and affordable ingredients… no individual ingredient is good or bad, it’s what it’s used for and the context it’s used in.”

Natural sweeteners

But what about consumer perceptions? If you are solely interested in the chemistry and functionality – rather than the story – of food, do you risk alienating consumers, or do we need to give them all a science lesson?

An interesting case in point is Cargill’s EverSweet​ sweetener, launching next year, in which a genetically engineered baker’s yeast converts sugars into the best-tasting steviol glycosides Reb D+M via a fermentation process. (Reb D+M are found naturally in the stevia leaf by in tiny percentages, making the economics of traditional leaf extraction challenging for these glycosides.)

While fermentation is not a new process, and producing sweeteners by feeding microbes is arguably more sustainable than growing acres of stevia plants just to extract components from their leaves, it is unclear how the market will respond to EverSweet, given that the reason food and beverage manufacturers started experimenting with stevia in the first place was precisely due to its ‘natural’ credentials (it’s from a leaf).

Stevia without stevia leaves, meat, milk, eggs without animals

In other words, if you take the stevia leaf out of the equation, aren’t you in something of a grey area in terms of food marketing, even if the final product is chemically identical to Reb D+M from a leaf? Can you even call it stevia? And does that matter?

It's a question that is likely to be thrown into sharp relief in the coming years as Silicon Valley start-ups create meat (Hampton Creek,Memphis Meats​), milk (Perfect Day​), gelatin (Geltor​) and eggs (Clara Foods​) without raising or harming animals, producing products that might be chemically identical to 'natural' or traditional foods, but are manufactured via fermentation or other methods on a 'greener, cleaner, kinder' platform.

In all food ingredients there’s a trade off

According to Dr Mallett: “In all food ingredients there’s a trade-off. What do people want? Do they want an excellent tasting sweetener that will help them reduce their calorie load that is produced in a sustainable way? Yes, it’s done by fermentation, yes, it’s fermenting a sugar… but look at wine, look at beer, they are fermented sugars, essentially…

“We’re giving ​[customers] an affordable, healthy, nutritious, and in particular a sustainable, ingredient.”  

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