Insight: why process food?

Oct 7, 2014
Johannes Baensch
INSIGHT: Johannes Baensch, Nestlé Global Head of Research and Development

By Johannes Baensch

When I was a child, my grandmother would make coffee using the only method available to her at the time, by roasting the raw beans in a frying pan on the stove.

The beans had to be heated to a very high temperature and mixed continuously to avoid scorching, or uneven roasting. Afterwards they had to be cooled quickly, to stop them over-roasting.

They then needed to be ground, the grounds mixed with hot water, and finally, the liquid coffee separated from the used grounds.

All in all, it was a time-consuming process that required a good deal of effort and concentration to get right.

More convenient

My grandmother enjoyed a good cup of coffee, but she was not an expert coffee roaster. Nor did she want to be, much like the majority of people who love drinking it.

While it’s true that today, some people are passionate about roasting and grinding their favourite drink themselves, most don’t have the time or the desire to do so.

That’s where our industry has made a difference - replacing labour intensive methods with more efficient ones, and creating consistent, often tastier, products as a result.

Delicate balance

What’s interesting is that when a person makes a perfect cup of coffee by hand, the element of craftsmanship is acknowledged.

But when the same process is performed industrially, there’s little recognition of the expertise involved.

In fact, most industrial food processing techniques are the outcome of years of research and development.

Many are modelled on artisanal and traditional methods, and are often a delicate balance of science and art.

Local knowledge

Take fermentation, thought to be one of the oldest recorded techniques for food preservation.

Fermentation is a method of biotransformation, in other words, the use of natural processes to improve the flavour, digestibility or shelf-life of food ingredients.

production of MAGGI cubes
NATURAL FERMENTATION: Ancient processing technique used in the production of MAGGI cubes.

It has been used in many products worldwide for centuries, particularly in traditional Asian dishes.

These include tempe, traditional Indonesian cuisine made from fermented soy beans, and kimchi, fermented vegetables with chilli, which is particularly popular in Korea.

At Nestlé we use natural wheat gluten fermentation to produce our MAGGI liquid seasoning, and soya fermentation for our MAGGI bouillon cubes in West Africa.

We know that the best way to understand traditional methods of processing ingredients is to work with the local cultures they originate from.

That’s why we partner with research institutes, universities and government agencies worldwide, to learn from local knowledge while sharing our own experience.

Alternative proteins

But food production cannot only be about working with recognisable ingredients.

As the global population expands, demand increases, and our resources become scarcer, it’s clear that we must identify new, long-term sources of essential nutrients.

Meat and fish are generally people’s main sources of protein, but their sustainability is debatable. We need to look for plant and vegetable alternatives.

This doesn’t only mean cultivating different raw materials.

It requires an in-depth understanding of their properties, and how to get the best from them at every stage of the value chain.

Enhanced nutrition

In many parts of the world, urban centres are expanding rapidly and increasing the distance from farm to fork within local regions.

This is why some food processors, including Nestlé, do not only focus on preserving the nutritional value of raw materials. They also find ways to enhance it.

Fortifying foods with micronutrients that are lacking in specific populations’ diets is one technique.

And as technology, and our knowledge, continue to advance, processing should enable us to do more to target the right nutrition, to the right people, at the right time.

Ancient practices

People have been processing food for thousands of years - cooking with fire, drying fruit, and curing meat with salt - as much to preserve taste as to ensure safety.

In the west, we’ve come to expect that the food we buy is safe to eat, but it wasn’t always the case.

Before the widespread introduction of pasteurisation, raw milk was a common source of bacteria that caused deadly tuberculosis and other foodborne illnesses.

Still today, in some parts of the world, many people don’t enjoy the luxury of knowing that the food they buy has gone through rigorous controls and checks.

So whether our food is extremely sophisticated, or fairly rudimentary, the challenge is essentially same.

It is not enough to grow and harvest raw materials. You need the expert know-how to turn them into safe, tasty, nutritious and convenient ingredients.

Processed products may make our lives easier, but the skills and talent required to produce them are harder to come by than you might think.

Johannes Baensch is Nestlé Global Head of Research and Development.

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