Biotechnology: The shadowy overlap of science and nature

Biotechnology can help improve a product’s nutritional profile, environmental benefits, culinary performance and more.

Karen Butler, Senior Managing Editor

March 12, 2019

9 Min Read
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Natural products are no stranger to scientific ingenuity. Picture chia seeds perfectly suspended throughout a ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage; capsule-in-capsule supplement technology; or a nondairy frozen dessert that hits the right notes for taste, texture and clean label appeal.

The use of biotechnology in the industry becomes a little less clear. Marcel Wubbolts, chief technology officer at Corbion, noted many definitions exist for biotechnology. The one his company most uses is from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is also the basis for that of EuropaBio, an industry organization covering industrial, medical and plant biotechnology. OECD defines biotech as, “The application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services.”

For some people, though, this definition is troubling. Rising concerns about genetic engineering—and varying positions regarding disclosure of its use—have led to more questions than answers when it comes to using technology to advance the industry.

Golan Raz, vice president of the global health division at Lycored, countered public apprehension, suggesting, “By nature, nutritional products—and especially naturally driven nutritional products—use technology at the very basis of both development and manufacturing.”

Esben Laulund, vice president of research & development (R&D) at Chr. Hansen, agreed. “Biotechnology, per definition, is the application of natural biological processes, and thus cannot be ‘unnatural.’ Through biotechnology, and especially microbiology, we can apply nature’s own processes in an industrial or agricultural setting and offer sustainable alternatives to chemicals and other unwanted additives.”

Certified food scientist Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., principal at Corvus Blue LLC, doesn’t think it’s that clean-cut. She maintained that at the foundational level, the lack of a legal definition for “natural” products has led to “an assortment of what someone believes to be natural—and therefore, also better for you and for the planet.”

From there, she said the industry “tends to be schizophrenic in this matter. It builds and supports the demand for clean label and minimally processed foods that are also safe and nutritious, but fails to educate its audience on the underlying technologies required to make that happen in many of the products commercialized in that sector.”

Shelke elaborated, “Many nature-derived alternatives to synthetic colors, flavors and other functional food additives cannot be produced in a commercially viable way without the use of white biotechnology.” She said white biotechnology’s use in the natural products industry is growing with the clean label movement, “but continues to be largely eclipsed because of the general fear of the mention of food biotechnology.”

According to the DSM website, “White biotechnology, or industrial biotechnology as it is also known, refers to the use of living cells and/or their enzymes to create industrial products that are more easily degradable, require less energy, create less waste during production and sometimes perform better than products created using traditional chemical processes.”

Shelke also mentioned “green biotechnology” at work in the realm of food production. This includes techniques to help crops adapt to climate change and to create new varieties of plants and animals using less water, fertilizer and pesticides to produce better quality crops. Agricultural green biotechnology refers to the application of biotechnology techniques in crop improvement, and environmental green biotechnology addresses the application of biotechnological processes in the protection and restoration of environmental quality.

Shelke noted, “Not all food biotechnology applications are good or evil,” and made the argument for a case-by-case determination. That said, she acknowledged, “There is a place for food biotechnology in the natural products industry.”

Raz said for Lycored, the goal is to create synergy between the power of nature, science and biotechnology. “We use biotechnology knowledge and state-of-the-art methods not to replace nature, but to enhance it and bring it to the everyday lives of more people,” he stated. It’s a mission that allows the company to support the health and well-being of consumers, “while minimizing the toll on the environment by enhancing sustainability throughout the entire process.”

Despite any indecision, biotechnology is here to stay. Shelke agreed, stating, “The large number of scientific papers published in the last two decades makes it evident that food biotechnology is a rapidly expanding field of science with applications that touch practically every aspect of our diet and health.”

She said the reach is also undeniable.

“Modern food biotechnology spans speed, safety and quality aspects of practically every category of food and beverage from end-to-end across the supply chain,” she said.“Even the most ancient of traditional foods—bread, wine, cheese, yogurt and beer—are all being made today with the use of food biotechnology.”

Benefits of Biotechnology

The appeal of biotechnology is best evidenced when reviewing its power in action. Laulund offered a range of examples. “Through biotechnology, and especially microbiology, we can apply good bacteria in enabling food producers to produce products with less added salt, sugar and fat because cultures can deliver the desired taste and texture, and probiotic bacteria can sharpen the health profile of a yogurt that is already perceived as healthy,” he explained. “Other types of bacteria ensure that fresh food stays fresh for longer, reducing food waste. In general, natural, sustainable food ingredients enable food producers to produce more with less and accommodate consumer demand for healthy, safe and sustainable products.”

In the case of Lycored’s portfolio, Raz pointed to the company’s tech-savvy processes, such as “clean extraction methods to produce concentrated, stable and biologically available carotenoids-based formulations and products.” He said the technologies allow for increased efficiencies and the ability to get “more out of less” from the actual botanical source—benefits that are environmentally friendly and increase supply stability to a growing population.     

Raz said Lycored starts with the very basic natural source, the seed. “The non-GMO [genetically modified organism] breeding program is just the first step. From farming to processing, every step of the way involves a state-of-the-art technology.” The result, he said, is “new breeds of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables that contain more of the valuable nutrients.”

Marc den Hartog, senior vice president of innovation platforms at Corbion, said the company has “seen the advantage of biotechnology in enhancing the nutritional profile, environmental benefits and culinary performance of algae oil.” He noted algae was originally found in the sap of a chestnut tree in a German botanical garden in the 1800s, and “is a natural producer of oil and protein, and is the foundation of our food chain and the basis of all plant life.” He said some of the company’s products “are made by simply applying the centuries-old technique of fermentation to algae.”

In the case of its AlgaWise® Algae Oil, the company starts with algae, then looks to nature “to find the best traits from descendant oil-producing plants, such as safflower or olive,” he stated. The traits are then introduced to the algae’s oil-producing pathways, which den Hartog said yields “an oil with even more good fats and less saturated fats.”

Global Efforts

Many suppliers are demonstrating their commitment to biotechnology by allocating significant resources. In 2017, DSM opened its Rosalind Franklin Biotechnology Center in the Netherlands, where the DSM Food Specialties global headquarters are located. According to a press release, the company opened the facility “to accelerate DSM’s biotechnology R&D capabilities for applications in food and nutrition, feed, fuel, pharma and bio-based materials.”

The project was “part of a 100 million euros (approx. $US112,781,273) investment program by DSM to scale up R&D in the Netherlands.” Additionally, “The center, which offers the broadest range of biotechnology specializations under one DSM roof, clusters innovation, housing over 400 R&D experts and builds on a solid history of nearly 150 years of fermentation and biotechnology innovation in Delft, the Netherlands.”

At the time of its opening, innovations under development in the new biotechnology center included the production of fermentative steviol glycosides as a potential answer for sugar reduction, as well as a new technology turning an inedible agricultural by-product of rapeseed, or canola, into valuable plant protein for a wide range of uses in food.

Wubbolts said Corbion has explored the power of biotechnology for more than 80 years by collaborating with leading laboratories, recruiting biotechnology experts and investing in advanced research facilities, as well as manufacturing assets for the fermentation of organic acids in Europe, the United States, Brazil and Thailand.

Chr. Hansen is also contributing its biotech expertise in beneficial bacteria as part of a nearly $4.5 million project, Bac4CroP. In late 2018, the Danish Innovation Fund awarded a grant to Chr. Hansen, University of Copenhagen and the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), which joined forces to develop natural solutions for sustainable agricultural production.

Jacob Baelum, project manager of plant health innovation at Chr. Hansen, said, “Natural microbes in the form of beneficial bacteria are a natural way to protect plants and crops, and can contribute to improved yield and crop quality within agriculture. The Bac4CroP project is aiming at revealing the underlying processes important for the interplay between microbes and the plant.” He anticipated this would help “accelerate the development of new microbial-based products for future agricultural production that can spur the conversion away from chemical pesticides and fertilizers and thereby provide agricultural solutions that will ensure high yields obtained in a highly bio-sustainable fashion.”

According to the American Academy of Microbiology report, “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” microbial solutions to improve plant health have the potential to increase crop productivity by 20 percent and reduce fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20 percent within 20 years.

The Future of Biotech

Shelke said a common use of today’s food biotechnology is “meeting market demand for fresh-like foods with intrinsic nutritive values and sensory attributes including flavor, odor, texture and taste in such a way that the public does not even realize the extent of biotechnologies that have been applied to their foods.”

Which brings things full circle. Biotechnology at some level or degree is already deeply engrained in the supply chain. In line with general best practices, when it comes to biotechnology, den Hartog said honest communication will serve industry best. “The most important thing that ingredient suppliers can do is to be transparent and clear about how we make our products—this is important for consumers to make informed choices,” he stated.

His colleague Wubbolts added biotechnology is no longer optional. “With a global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, society will need all kinds of solutions to produce enough food, clothing and shelter with fewer resources and with less environmental and adverse social impacts,” he stated. “While many of these problems are exponential, many of society’s solutions so far have been incremental. We must innovate and seek breakthrough solutions to meet these problems.”

The results, he noted, will enable manufacturers “to rethink their supply chains as they seek to create healthier and more sustainable products.” Wubbolts concluded, “We need many different solutions and we will need all kinds of collaborations to make that happen.”

About the Author(s)

Karen Butler

Senior Managing Editor, Informa Markets

Karen Butler is a senior managing editor at Informa Markets. For nearly 25 years, she’s worked in a variety of editorial roles, covering topics such as animal nutrition, functional food & beverage, and dietary supplement ingredients and trends. She most enjoys working behind the scenes as a copyeditor, as well as building community and supporting a team. Reach her at [email protected].

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