Designer foods are also known as GM crops, or genetically-manufactured goods. At times they are also referred to as “functional foods”. These foods are genetically-manipulated with the purpose of adding or changing the nutrients and other properties of the original product. The rationale behind this process is that food can be made healthier, less fattening, or (in the case of crops) able to withstand the attacks of insects, as well as changes in weather. Hence, a stronger and more resistant type of crop may grow at a higher rate, producing more food for consumers. However, those who oppose the production of functional foods claim that the genetic changes in these foods are counterproductive to human health. They also believe that the process is altogether anti-ethical.
Dietary supplements or foodstuffs containing nutrients and various combinations of vitamins, minerals, and other substances considered by some to offer clinically significant benefit, often without adequate scientific proof of efficacy. You may have heard of lab-grown meat, but what’s happening now in the world of lab-designed and manufactured foods?
At this stage, the scientists working on these don’t really envisage a future where everything that we eat originates from a petri dish. The goal is to develop nutritional complements to an otherwise ‘normal’ diet based around dietary guidelines: processed foods that are quick and convenient, but also healthy and nutritious (unlike most ultra-processed foods we so happily consume today).
Another major goal is to provide healthy and palatable foods to people who have trouble consuming normal foods—such as those who suffer from dysphagia (difficulty with swallowing). Often they have no other option but to eat meal after meal of pureed, mushy foods.
One potential new option for these people involves high-pressure processed meat. The high-pressure treatment tenderises the meat and makes it safer for swallowing, as well as preserving more of the nutritional value. Researchers are also working on cheeses made from milk, where the size of the fat droplets is controlled. This can alter the texture, making it softer and easier to eat.
Both of these products have the initial sensations and appeal of ‘normal’ meat or cheese, but are in fact softer, break down much more easily and self-lubricate to allow for easier and safer swallowing.
Using food science to develop options low in saturated fats is another area of research. Low-fat options need to replicate the lingering sensation that a fatty emulsion leaves in our mouths or, chances are, people will reject it as a substitute.
Another aspect of designer foods is the fortification of foods with useful nutrients that a population might not receive from their everyday diets. In Australia, mandatory fortification adds thiamin (vitamin B1) and folic acid to the wheat flour that’s used to make bread. This helps provide the nutrients pregnant women require to prevent neural tube defects in developing babies. We also have iodine added to table salt, to help prevent iodine deficiencies that can lead to thyroid problems and congenital iodine deficiency syndrome.
Some designer food can also be used to fight malnutrition. Food scientists in South Africa have developed a biscuit made from sorghum and cowpeas (crops that are endemic to the region and easy to grow there) that provide 50 per cent of a child’s daily protein requirements. While the recipe for this biscuit was developed and fine-tuned in the lab, it’s easy to make and can be cooked by anyone. You can find the recipe here.
In a similar project in India, biscuits high in protein, vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients have been developed by incorporating spirulina, a type of blue-green algae. The World Food Programme has also developed fortified energy and protein-dense foodstuffs for use in disaster areas and emergency food relief.
As we go into the future, scientists and food companies will keep working on making food that meets our personal tastes but also developing healthier and more nutritious options that complement our agricultural systems, as well as foods that will provide nutritious options for people who might otherwise struggle to maintain a healthy diet.
This article was adapted, content and reviewed by the following experts: Professor Russell Keast Centre for Advanced Sensory Science and School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences; Deakin University; Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney; Dr Ingrid Appelqvist Senior Research Scientist, Agriculture and Food, CSIRO.