Nutrition and food are a central part of our lifestyle and budgets. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, food expenditures are the third greatest expense for most family and individual budgets, after housing and transportation. Chefs use food as a way of self-expression, and food art has become a thriving industry with the emergence of reality shows such as Top Chef and Iron Chef. Yet, the variety of food we see at the grocery store and the food practices that occur behind the scenes to keep our food safe would not have been possible without engineers.
Over the past 50 years, engineered technologies have had a major impact on nutrition and food safety. In 1864, Louis Pasteur developed the pasteurization process that destroys harmful microorganisms responsible for disease and spoilage in milk, cheese, yogurt, and fruit juices. The pasteurization process involves heating the food to a specific temperature for a certain length of time and then immediately cooling it after it is removed from the heat. This initial process developed by Louis Pasteur has been improved upon by decades of engineers. Current engineering research on pasteurization include new techniques such as the Continuous Flow-UV Liquid Pasteurization process which provides for higher retention of nutritional and sensorial quality of the food.
Food transport is another area where engineers have contributed to nutrition. If people could only buy foods that can be grown locally in season, then many people would not be able to enjoy strawberries, tomatoes, and herbs in the winter or apples, dates, and kale in the summer. Although eating locally and seasonally is preferred for sustainability, many people need to eat certain foods year-round to maintain a nutritious diet because of conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or selective eating disorder. Engineers were central to the development of many processes for safe food transport, including flash freezing technology and global food transport temperature control.
Flash, or blast, freezing preserves food at a higher quality by rapidly cooling it to freezing temperatures. Flash freezing also slows down bacteria growth and reduces the risk of contamination. Engineers worked to develop the specific freezers for this process which require a larger footprint, more power and larger air blowers than traditional freezers. When foods are frozen or refrigerated, it is important that accurate temperatures are maintained for preservation of the food during transport. Engineers developed the technology to monitor the temperature control of specific food transport containers on ships, planes, and trucks using satellites. Because of engineers, food producers and distributors and can now transport healthy and nutritious food safely across the globe.
There have been many achievements by engineers in the field of nutrition, and there are even more ways that engineers can possibly expand the field in the future. The fantasies of science fiction writers and readers may be coming true. Imagine new ways to intake, make, and evaluate our food consumption. In 50 years, new technologies developed by engineers could completely change how we eat and buy our food as well as adjust the nutrition of our personal diets.
Over the past 20 years, engineers have created new 3D systems that can print organs, toys, jewelry, and prosthetics. A new 3D food printer, the ChefJet, is being marketed to professional chefs as a useful tool for making desserts. Today, we have the ChefJet and, in twenty more years, we could have refrigerators with built-in 3D printers. Picture this...you wake up and tell your refrigerator to make breakfast. By the time you finish getting ready, the refrigerator has already made breakfast for you using spools of meat, dairy and pancake batter products. These food spools would be designed for your family taking into account dietary needs, calorie goals, and food allergies. This refrigerator would even make the arrangement of your food more creative. Your breakfast could be a replica of the White House, the Egyptian Pyramids, a cartoon character, or a favorite origami shape. For children who have trouble eating their vegetables, turning broccoli and carrots into an edible 3D miniature bicycle may result in a clean plate! These scenarios could one day be reality as engineers continue to conduct research on 3D printing techniques.
With all the busyness happening around us and in our lives, we barely have time to think about our nutrition. The excrement from our bodies provides a wealth of information regarding our food habits and potential nutritional deficiencies. A new developmental technology, the General Practitioner Toilet, is a smart toilet that provides a health report based on the urine sample automatically collected in the toilet’s basin. In my mind’s eye, the toilet of the future would expand on this concept and automatically analyze both urine and feces to provide information on the nutritional content of previous meals and suggestions of foods to include in the next meal to maintain or achieve a balanced and nutritious diet. In addition, the smart toilet and refrigerator would interface so that updates are automatically made to the next meal based on the excrement analysis results. In order for this vision to come true, engineers are needed to build the mechanical systems to collect the samples using clean laboratory methods, develop the analytical methods which can produce real-time results from the excrements, and design the computer software and hardware for the operation of the smart toilet.
There are an endless amount of possibilities for engineers to make positive contributions to the field of nutrition. Engineers are needed to design and build new systems to keep our food healthy and nutritious. Engineers are needed to develop new technologies that can help the average person develop more nutritious food habits. I am excited to see how the engineers of tomorrow will improve nutrition and even life itself.