Universities Dig into Food Research

Scientists and researchers are using technology to make food last longer, taste better and grow in urban areas.

Most college students only think about food when they need to figure out what could fuel their next study session or satisfy late-night munchies. Students earning degrees in the food sciences, however, spend the majority of their university years with food on the brain.

With the world population expected to hit 9.6 billion by 2050, finding new ways to grow food sustainably will be essential—and that’s the mission of the MIT CityFARM, which is dedicated to “inventing the future of agriculture using cutting-edge engineering, big data and network connectivity.”

Since the group’s inception in 2013, its members, which include engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists, are focused on developing new ways to grow food in the heart of urban areas. Their goal: to rethink the idea of grow it THERE and eat it HERE and replace it with grow it HERE and eat it HERE.

At the CityFARM plant lab, researchers are exploring how they can bring the farm to the city in a scalable way with new systems for growing food that include elements of hydroponics (growing plants in water rather than soil), aquaponics (growing plants in water together with aquatic animals such as fish or prawns) and aeroponics (growing plants in air or mist).

aeroponics

The group believes its techniques could potentially reduce the amount of water needed for agriculture by 98 percent and eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Since space is at a premium in urban areas, the team at CityFARM is also studying architectural research on light and spatial dynamics to find creative ways to integrate food production into urban areas.

Their preliminary research suggests that a “façade-integrated” food production system that captures natural light could consume 60 percent less fertilizer, 90 percent less water, and produce 90 percent less carbon dioxide than a traditional soil-based farm.

Perhaps the most important thing to come from CityFARM, however, is the Open Agriculture project, an online platform that allows food researchers worldwide to share their data and collaborate on ideas.

In one interview, Caleb Harper, the MIT Media Lab Research Scientist heading up the CityFARM project, described the platform as “like the Linux of food.”

“We want to create that foundation that protects and supports and allows developers a base from which to start in the food tech space,” he said.

Making Kids Eat Their Veggies

While MIT is exploring new ways to grow food in new environments, researchers at Penn State are exploring ways to make food taste better.

By examining the basic structure of foods, researchers like Dr. John Coupland, Professor of Food Science at Penn State, are able to better understand why certain foods taste the way they do.

“One new technique we use in this is EPR spectroscopy, which enables us to measure the distribution of small molecules and reactivity,” he said. Those findings can then be applied to alter how food tastes by making adjustments on a molecular level.

This research could be a boon for parents whose kids balk at green veggies.

“We want to design foods to bind up bitter compounds so they aren’t tasted,” says Coupland. “We want to find ways to increase compliance — particularly in children — as many healthy food components don’t taste good.”

This research has applications beyond food as well: Coupland said the same techniques used to make food taste less bitter can be applied to medicines as well, making them more tolerable, especially for young patients.

The work could also be used to keep food fresher longer. “We take a similar approach to control oxidation (rancidity) in foods by binding up the antioxidants,” he said.

To facilitate research, the Penn State Department of Food Science has a Sensory Evaluation Center that features 12 testing booths for data collection using Compusense software. The tech allows scientists, package engineers and nutritionists to better understand how specific ingredients, processes, packages, or storage conditions affect the sensory properties of foods.

Three state-of-the-art Pilot Plants evaluate new ingredients, and the Berkey Creamery, which produces cheese and the university’s famous ice cream, has a lab for dairy research and industry testing.

Challenging College Kids

If the goal is to engage students in their studies, offering free ice cream samples is a pretty solid way to go. Harvard, however, just might have Penn State beat with their reward for innovative food research: cold, hard cash.

This year the university’s Innovation Lab (i-Lab) is challenging students to find ways to “Food Better” and develop “innovative solutions for a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food system.”

Through this year-long, university-wide competition, students work in teams to develop proposals on ways to improve the global food system in one of four main areas: producing sustainable, nutritious food; innovating in food distribution and markets; improving our diet; and reducing food waste.

Before submitting their proposals earlier this year, students were encouraged to utilize The Open Forum, an online platform where they could discuss and provide feedback on each other’s ideas.

Five teams were chosen as finalists and were given $5,000 and a mentor to help them incubate their ideas. Those finalists are:

BioFarMarket, which will bridge the existing distribution gap between organic farmers and consumers in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.

Coolify, a micro-cold storage solution that improves post-harvest agriculture supply chains and reduces spoilage.

FOCUS Foods, an urban aquaponics farm that will become a self-sustaining symbiotic fish and produce system serving the local Philadelphia community.

Icebox, a system of modular networked cold storage for healthy, sustainable food distribution.

Waste to Feast, a system that repurposes commercial leftovers to feed homeless children and families.

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At the end of the year, the winning team and two runners-up will receive larger cash prizes, but the Food Better challenge isn’t just about the final reward. To educate students on the food system, the competition is also punctuated by events and workshops throughout the year. These include field trips to local farms, restaurants and food banks, an Earth Day Sustainability Fair, and a Food+ Research Symposium.

 

As the Co-Founder and lead writer/editor for LA Music Blog, a Los Angeles-based music news and review website, Kristin Houser’s life revolves around music and technology. She is very pleased to share her latest music obsessions and all the ways technology allows her to discover and enjoy music with iQ’s audience.

 

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