Report | Genomic analysis, nanoencapsulation and microbiological quality control: three key biotech tools for healthy food
We spoke with our members about the future of these precision techniques on a scale that is nearly invisible to the human eye, their current applications and the roadblocks to implementing them
Can you imagine being able to eat a healthy frozen pizza? Or buying bread made just for you? Or not having to feel guilty about missing out on the benefits of fish because you don’t like the taste or are allergic? Can you imagine a soup that is completely natural but has all the nutrients your body needs? Biotechnology companies can make this happen, even though it sounds like science fiction. The sector is working to achieve precision, personalised food using innovative technology that improves food quality and nutritional benefits, while also being sustainable and eco-friendly. The key is innovating to train, implement, scale up and hit the supermarket aisles or general practitioner’s surgery. Consumers, more aware of the importance of healthy eating, are driving up demand and AseBio members are preparing to meet it. We spoke with three of them at different stages of the food chain.
Before getting started, the most important thing to know is what each person needs to benefit from personalised nutrition. The IMDEA Food Institute nutritional genomics laboratory analyses people’s genes to get a precise view of what they are missing or have too much of, and what harms them, how to make up for what they lack and avoid excesses in order to give them supplements that fit their health and genomic profiles. This test developed by IMDEA Food is already being used by some endocrinologists to give their patients specific recommendations and make their treatments more effective. “It’s a way to bring it to the people and we can tell you what you’re like and what you need, with important applications for patients with complex diseases like obesity and cancer,” notes Ana Ramírez de Molina, deputy director of IMDEA Food and director of the Precision Nutrition and Cancer Program.
This brings us to another part that is nearly invisible, but no less important: nanoencapsulation. This technology would be the step that comes after the IMDEA’s work. After detecting the patient’s specific needs, using biotechnology, it is possible to develop a powder with all the elements they need, from proteins to vitamins, minerals and more, all in nanocapsules. To get an idea of the scale of the product, Nucaps CEO Mariano Oto confessed that 5,000 of these capsules would fit on a human hair.
So, we would be able to put this powder in our soup, without affecting the taste. Then, without it taking much effort on our part, these capsules would reach our intestines, where they would release the elements that would make us healthier. “We can do it with any active substance that is difficult to administer orally because it breaks down quickly, isn’t absorbed well or tastes bad. We protect the active substance in terms of storage stability, throughout the industrial process to the final product and the time it is ingested. In fact, we work with substances released in the intestine, stomach, mouth or epidermis. With this technology, you can incorporate healthy nutritional elements precisely, naturally and affordably,” explains the CEO of this company that is active in seven European countries and has a growth plan for 2022 with its sights set internationally.
Moving on to another essential link in the chain, a must, we have our member IUL S.A. This company focuses on quality control for food on a microbiological level, which is essential to our good health and nutrition. Biological control was where the company got its start in 1987. “We began with small automations, instruments that were already available on the market and innovation in the field. Little by little, we improved and brought our products and services to companies in the food industry, from the biggest to the smallest,” the company’s Marketing Manager Magalí Palau tells us. Today, it can take between 24 and 72 hours to get the results of traditional microbiological controls. One of the company’s goals is to keep innovating and get results faster, and also to make this quality control easy enough that companies can stop outsourcing it and do it themselves. “Allergens are already analysed with quick, easy-to-use methods, but doing this with bacteria is a bit more complicated,” warns Palau.
IMDEA Food is of a similar opinion. There is a lot of information now on lactose, gluten, fructose, for example, where the instructions have been established using genetics and implemented in various areas, and consumers are becoming familiar with them. The next step would be more complex personalisation, for example, including the microbiota. “It’s more futuristic, but just as it took time to get to personalised medicine, we’re on our way to precision nutrition. We need more expertise and agility among all the stakeholders,” notes Ramírez de Molina.
Roadblocks, challenges and acceptance
Nucaps, a Navarra-based company founded in 2017 that has been working with their technology for over 10 years, started with a challenge that had to be overcome as quickly as possible to reach the market: scaling up. “It was crystal clear in the lab, but taking that to an industrial scale was one of our greatest challenges in the beginning. Developing milligrams isn’t the same as hundreds of kilos.” Then came more challenges, such as stability and improving foods, handling changes in pressure, temperature and the new technology that pops up and your system has to adapt to.
This need to adapt to the context, to other machinery, to what exists or changes, is a challenge we also heard from IMDEA Food and IUL. Palau explains that classic microbiology techniques haven’t changed much in recent years. “We are trying to transform the system to adapt it to the advancing food industry, for example with connectivity that allows the samples analysed with our instruments to be more traceable and to integrate the results into their systems, among other things. But we have to limit ourselves to the methods and technology approved by official bodies for analysing samples,” she notes.
But, although the industry is evolving in terms of technology and demands, IMDEA Food has also observed significant roadblocks in terms of resources and R&D agility. “Having an R&D department is a given for a pharma company. In food, except for large corporations, it’s less common. Despite society’s demand, precision nutrition is a new thing in Spain that has just appeared and hasn’t been fully embraced by the industry yet. Demand is increasing, that’s true, but with little information or knowledge of the scientific advances that are happening and could bring great value added to some products with sweeping social and public health applications. We still feel some reticence towards joining innovative projects, warns the deputy director of this research centre that specialises in precision nutrition and was created roughly ten years ago.
As the name indicates, the food industry is a chain and “if it isn’t throughout that chain, it won’t work.” All the experts agree that we have to work together so science and industry will go hand-in-hand and allow these advances to reach society faster so we can finally eat not only what we should but also what we want, without worrying about it harming us and also having it be good for us.
#WeAreBiotechnology #WeAreScience #WeAreIndustry
By Agathe Cortes and Sofía Garro