VTT developing ‘healthier and more sustainable’ cultured plants

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Could lab grown veggies be the future of food? ©iStock/shironosov
Could lab grown veggies be the future of food? ©iStock/shironosov
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is developing a new way of producing what it says are healthier, cheaper and more sustainable plant-based foods through plant cell culture (PCC) technology.

Negating the need to grow crops in the field, VTT researchers are working to develop cultured plant-based foodstuffs and ingredients.

A new study from the research centre has examined the nutritional and sensory properties of dried and fresh cells grown from cloudberry, lingonberry and stoneberry using PCC techniques.

Better for you, better for the planet 

The results show PCC methods can produce food that has a higher nutritional value than conventional crops, Heiko Rischer, leader of VTT’s plant biotechnology research team, told FoodNavigator.

“The nutritional values were better than those of the corresponding fruits. For example, there was more protein and unsaturated fatty acids among others,​” Rischer said.

The plant cell samples had high protein content of 14 to 19%, and in vitro analysis showed good protein digestibility. The contents of essential amino acids important to muscle, bone and tissue health were higher than those reported for soy.

The dietary fibre of the samples varied between 21% and 37%, while energy content was also “higher than anticipated”​. The PCC samples were also found to be rich sources of unsaturated fatty acids.

The PCC fruits were produced faster than through conventional agriculture, using fewer natural resources. PCC technology could therefore come as an answer to some of the biggest sustainability issues facing the agri-food sector, such as water and land use.

“This is not only a completely new opportunity for the food industry but to society as a whole. There is not enough arable land to meet the growing global population’s food demands; new solutions are desperately needed. Cell cultures have serious potential for meeting this need,”​ suggested Emilia Nordlund, leader of VTT’s Food Solutions Team.

PCC methods also have the potential to reduce waste in the food chain, Rischer added.

This issue is one of the central points here. The production would actually happen in cities [meaning] the need to transport (including spoilage on the way) is much reduced. The whole process is aseptic: microbes cannot spoil the material.”

But does it taste good?

To gain traction in the food industry, the sensory experience is also an important factor to consider.

According to VTT, the cultured cloudberry, lingonberry and stoneberry performed well in taste tests.

The PCC samples had a “pleasant, fresh and mild flavour”​, which resembled that of corresponding fresh fruits, the researchers said.

The berry-like flavour was more intense in the dried samples, which also melted “appealingly”​ in mouth.

The visual appearance of cell cultures also resembled that of the corresponding fresh fruits, VTT claimed.

Rischer said that preliminary work on consumer acceptance suggested that consumers are fairly open to eating cultured plant-based foods. “Consumer acceptance was evaluated on small scale. Unsurprisingly, young tech-oriented urban citizens are most pro. Consumers seem generally quite open towards this approach,​” he revealed.

A new type of superfood?

While VTT noted the similarity between the conventional and PCC fruits, Rischer stressed that a direct comparison is not necessarily appropriate.

“Biomass produced with plant cell culture technology should be considered as completely new food material, which is why their characteristics should not necessarily be compared with corresponding fresh fruits. Their excellent nutritional properties are a sign of great future potential of plant cell cultures in creating new types of superfoods. The variations produced by using different plants offer limitless possibilities,”​ he noted.

VTT has seen a “lot of interest​” from the food sector, with specific development projects already underway.

Rischer was not able to detail the nature of these projects due to their “confidential​” nature. However, he revealed: “We are working on multiple aspects of the technology spanning from the actual biotechnological production to downstream processing and product development.”

He expects to see PCC techniques deployed commercially in the space of a “few years​”.

For the food industry, plant cells and their dried versions offer opportunities to create new types of healthy food products and ingredients, such as smoothies, caviar-like compotes and snack foods, VTT suggested.

Related topics: Science

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