How to improve the environmental performance of food products?
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
As detailed in a previous article, the food industry is at the crossroads of multiple sustainability issues, and in particular environmental issues. In this context, how can a company innovate and create value while reducing its environmental impacts?
Many companies are now taking up this challenge with a wide variety of proposals: from packaging reduction to biomimetics, take a look with us at examples of eco-design applied to the food industry!
1. The "vegetalized" sausage
Photography: Noortje Knulst
Vegetables at the butcher's! Scientists agree on the importance of reducing our meat consumption to lower the environmental burden – while reinforcing our health. Carolien Neibling is a Dutch designer that took a look on the matter by searching for an appetizing solution that would reduce meat consumption. In collaboration with a master butcher and a molecular gastronomy specialist chef, Carolien is developing the "sausages of the future": sausages that contain 20% less meat than traditional recipes. Instead? Legumes, insects, fruit and vegetables that allow for a diversification of the protein intake. Would the weirdly appetizing design of the sausages encourage a smooth transition to a less meaty diet?
To go further: Carolien Neibling tells her story and her approach in the video below. A real lesson in reflection and design.
2. Biomimetics supports targeted fungicide emissions
How does nature solve a similar problem? This is the question that biomimetics experts ask themselves when looking for a solution to a problem. Biomimetics apply to almost all sectors, and agriculture is no exception. For instance: Nanomik Biotechnology has developed a solution to limit the use of fungicides in vineyards while preserving grape production and yields.
In nature, plants combat fungal disease and stimulate the activation of the defensive systems of nearby plants by emitting volatile molecules.
Based on this principle, the company Nanomik has created a solution for encapsulating these defence molecules. When the product is used, capsules attach to both the plant and the fungus and then release the molecules in a controlled manner.
To go further, Nanomik's website provides more details on how this technology works and shows the company's other products, dedicated to increasing the shelf life of vegetables and fruits after purchase.
3. The double functionality of Tassiopeia's munchable cups
Another approach in eco-design: extending the functionality of a product by multiplying its functions. Tassiopée, a young Paris based start-up, is striving to offer an original and eatable cup to its customers. No more waste with these edible cups: the cup becomes an ingredient of the drink!
The main function of the cup is broadened and even enriched with culinary interest. The Tassiopée team did not stop at the end of life issue: their chewable cups also integrate the issue of agricultural practices by choosing ingredients from organic farming. Tassiopée also strives to limit the impact of transport by favouring products from French regions.
To go further, Tassiopée's website illustrates in detail how to taste these succulent cups (in French):
4. Inspired by the seasons, another side of biomimetics
Biomimetics refer to the development of innovative solutions inspired by living organisms, and more generally from nature itself. Adapting to the rotation of the seasons is an example: ecodeisgn of food could mean a return to seasonal food.
The sale of vegetable baskets as proposed by community-supported agriculture or companies are concrete examples of the appropriation of seasonality by the agri-food sector. For instance, Boîtes @ meuh is a French company selling products in short food supply chains at any time of the day or night in the Ile-de-France region. By avoiding long-term storage and conservation, environmental impacts are reduced and nutritional qualities are preserved.
This concept implies a great deal of thought about the production chain, which must be flexible to adapt to the seasonality of the products. The agro-food industries could take this opportunity to innovate and diversify the composition of their recipes. A side advantage is to make consumers aware of the importance of consuming locally and seasonally, and to increase pleasure through renewed taste!
To go further, Les Boîtes @ Meuh details the approach of their short circuit ordering service on their website (In French).
5. Undressing the product: the craze for bulk
Packaging is a real marketing asset: it contains and preserves the product while offering a support to promote the brand and attract the consumer's eye. However, criticism of overpackaging is accelerating among consumers.
In recent years, the appeal of certain consumers for packaging has gone down: bulk is the new trend. Day by Day is one of France's leading bulk companies. Pasta, flour, biscuits, confectionery, oils, cosmetics, household products and even animal feed, the company offers a wide variety of products. The benefits of bulk are multiple: less packaging, less transport, choice of quantity for the consumer and cheaper products.
The growing "zero waste" clientele is causing more and more companies to switch to bulk. Even big brands are going for it!
6. High Tech pasta
When a company aims at limiting the environmental impact of transport and packaging, it generally seeks to reduce the volume and weight of its product packaging. However, it is often difficult for companies to achieve real innovation without impacting how the food looks and therefore how it will sell. So how to combine attractive appearance and low volume?
This is the question that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been working on, in the very specific case of pasta. The researchers have imagined a pasta that transforms itself from a 2D shape, easy to pack and transport, into a 3D shape, which is pleasant in the plate. It simply happens when the pasta comes into contact with water. This transformation of the product is ensured by a film of gelatine with varying thickness on the starch. The gelatine expands on contact with water and the stress created by the change in thickness changes the shape of the dough.
To go further, the MIT media displays incredible animations of the different pasta transformations.
7. Peel Saver, think twice before throwing away!
Waste production is a major issue in the food industry. The three designers at the origin of the Peel Saver focused on the losses by potato processing companies and how to reduce them in an original and fashion way.
How can potato peelings be dealt with while creating value? Simone Caronni, Paolo Stefano Gentile and Pietro Gaeli turned the peelings into a plastic-free packaging for street food. The packaging, made of only starch and fiber from potato waste, is both strong and biodegradable, and perfect to contain French fries. By recycling this waste, the three designers have succeeded in giving it economic value while reducing the environmental impact of the industry and of street-food.
To go further, the article published by the three designers dives into the thought process behind the creation of the Peel Saver.
8. Targeting “Zero emission" factories
The consumption of water and energy is an important issue in the food industry. However, turning off the taps or the lights when leaving a room just won’t solve the issue. The whole chain must be considered in order to identify potential eco-design approaches.
Nestlé's powdered milk production plant in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico provides an interesting example: in a country where water resources are scarce, the factory has set itself the ambitious objective of achieving "zero water consumption". It should be noted that initially, the treatment of one liter of milk required two liters of groundwater. By recovering the water vapour evaporated during milk dehydration, the Lagos factory has achieved its objective and enables the saving of 1.6 million liters of water per year, which corresponds to 15% of the water consumed by all Nestlé production sites in Mexico. The "zero water consumption" target was taken up by other manufacturing units in Brazil and similar plans are expected to develop in Africa, California, China and Pakistan in the coming years.
To go further, the 2014 CSR report details Nestlé's commitments to environmental conservation and water saving.
9. Back ahead!
Innovation is not always to be found in the brand new. It can sometimes come back from ancestral practices. This is most evident in conservation techniques. Salting, appertisation, fermentation, drying and many other processes have been developed by civilizations over the centuries and are still today among the most efficient techniques. These traditional processes are by nature energy efficient. They might bring a powerful factor of eco-innovation into the design of new products.
La Préserverie is a company that makes jars of vegetables preserved by lactic fermentation. This method, that almost disappeared with the arrival of canning and pasteurisation, works by promoting the growth of safe bacteria. This method allows both to avoid the use of energy-intensive industrial processes, and to promote an alternative method of preservation that largely preserves the nutritional qualities of the product. This method can also substitute the use of preservatives in processed products such as ketchup or hummus.
To go further, the website of La Préserverie© details the nutritional qualities of its products (in French).
10. Towards Seaweeds
Diets are changing, and companies are following with new products, particularly protein sources: pulses, insects, algae... Widely used in traditional kitchens in Asia, these are gaining ground in the West, for instance with spirulina, rich in proteins and vitamins, used primarily as a dietary supplement.
The development of vegetarian and vegan diets is boosting demand. Many producers of spirulina have emerged in recent years in France, betting on local trade but also on online sales.
The family run farm Spiruline des Olonnes offers spirulina in granules, powder or even honey directly on the farm, on the local marketplaces or on its online shop.
Algama goes further by developing recipes based on spirulina and chlorella to replace meat and animal products and create food with a high nutritional value. Algama's objective is to democratise and promote seaweed as a trendy alternative to meat.
To go further, the Spiruline des Olonnes© website contains an online shop to discover the products available and also offers guided tours of the farm!
The Algama© website explores the technological possibilities offered by algae through several FoodTech innovations.