The future of food labelling
The power will be in your hands (and an app)
Food labelling is incredibly complex and often too small to read.
However, we are increasingly reliant on what a label says. Those on special diets, have severe allergies, gluten intolerance etc. all expect accuracy from what is printed on a label. However, it appears we may well be moving on from basic labelling into a brand-new territory. It is quite possible that in the near future we will be able to scan individual fresh plant foods on supermarket shelves with an app. This will enable consumers to know exactly just how nutritious food actually is and challenge claims of ‘fresh’, ‘nutritious’ or ‘beneficial to health.
Fresh from the 2020 Oxford Farming Conference, Matt Adams spoke to presenters on the BBC Today programme about the initiative, that is part of a Citizens Science Project entitled:
Growing Real Food for Nutrition.
The science behind the app is about crop nutrient density.This can be utilised to describe the true quality of food as it is possible to record the density of nutrients within a fresh foodstuff. This is interesting as we’ve often been told how frozen foods contain more nutrients than some vegetables that have been hanging around too long on supermarket shelves. We’ve also heard the advice that if you grow your own sweetcorn you should put the water on to boil before cutting the corn and running back into the kitchen to pop it straight in the pan. Why? It’s because as time passes vital sugars are lost. One can only imagine just how poor a fresh sweetcorn would be having been cut, packed, transported, stored and then put on display some days after harvest. By the time the outer leaves turn the colour of hay surely its only dietary value is fibre.
Is it time to increase UK soil health?
Therefore, it seems that Matt Adams may well have a salient point. He stated that a healthy plant growing well in fertile soil and growing environment will photosynthesise and subsequently produce a lot of carbohydrates, which is basically sugar to you and me. Up to 50% of the sugar produced actually by the plant is used to feed soil microbes. This is achieved by passing through the roots and leaching out into the soil.
Our soil is essential to the maintenance of a healthy food chain
Bacteria, fungi and mycelia networks are activated by this process and fed by the plant. In return the organisms extract the mineral elements the plant requires through the soil. So, there is an element of communication going on and an example of a symbiotic relationship between soil, plant and microbes. This demonstrates just how important soil health is to production and the maintenance of the food chain.
When this symbiosis is functioning effectively it is an indicator that the plant will produce a lot of carbohydrate. If we can test just how many carbs for ourselves we can, for the first time, see just how nutrient dense the food we are buying really is.
So how is nutrient density tested?
In the BBC studio Matt gave two carrot samples to the presenters and asked them to say which one tasted better. Both chose sample two. Matt cut the samples, crushed them with pliers and placed each sample on a glass slide. A reactant liquid was added, and the mix was placed into a refractometer. Within fewer than 60 seconds a reading was given.
Are carrots really as healthy as we give them credit for?
Both presenters said that sample 2 tasted better and it was found to actually have a higher nutrient density reading. However, this did not make either carrot a healthy addition to a diet; both carrots were found to be very average on the reading scale. The scale started at poor and up to excellent. Matt stated that both carrots definitely had room for improvement.
If it tastes good that’s all that matters isn’t it?
Quite often it seems the better something tastes in the plant world the more nutritious it really was. This surely must suggest that surely it is worth shopping locally for fresh vegetables. Farm shops may well want to up their game, grab a tester and prove the nutritious element of buying super fresh veg to steal a march on supermarkets. What do you think?
Learn to love Degrees Brix
Matt Adams went on to say in the interview that more carbs feeding microbes in the soil meant they would be constantly making chemical compounds. It was quite an industry as there are up to 40k individual secondary metabolites in each carrot, for example. They are constantly producing flavour components in a healthy system. The apparatus tests ‘Degrees Brix which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. This system is, at present being used in wine, fizzy drinks, honey, fruit juice and maple syrup production.
Should farmers try to produce nutritionally dense vegetables to allow for deterioration?
The app will help people test what they buy at point of sale. My concern is that it might create even more waste unless we can ensure vegetables can get from farm to supermarket much more quickly. Right now, a bio nutrient meter is being developed in the U.S and the hope is one of their scanners will be brought to the UK. If this happens, as an Open Source project people will be asked to get testing or send in samples to be scanned. This may well revolutionise how we buy vegetables in the future. However, it may well lead to increased waste unless farmers can increase the soil health and ensure their veg reach optimum levels as they are picked to allow for acceptable deterioration levels during transportation and storage. We shall have to see how all this plays out.
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