Hunger and malnutrition is a crime against humanity, a crime that is truly unpardonable when it can be remedied with a little extra planning and foresight. It has been revealed by numerous studies that the sheer numbers of hungry masses in India could be fed if only food wastage is clipped right at the source.
An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, that is one- third of all food produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The amount of food lost or wasted costs $2.6 trillion annually and is more than enough to feed all the 815 million hungry people in the world.
In developed countries, food wastage mainly occurs at the consumer end, while in developing countries, food wastage primarily occurs within the supply chain. For instance, in low-income regions, food wastage is often related to poor infrastructure, equipment limitations or insufficient cold storage.
As a result, France has banned food wastage by forcing supermarkets to sign agreements with charities so that no edible food ends up in the trash. Similarly, Italy has passed a law that makes donating food easier for businesses and offers tax credits to supermarkets and farmers who donate. There is also a proposal for a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy now in place in Canada.
On the other hand, the Australian government is working with farmers, food manufacturers, industry leaders, and business owners to investigate solutions to help get more food through the supply chain and onto plates, rather than wasting it.
As for India, though it ranked 94th of the 107 countries on the global hunger index in 2020, more than $10 billion worth of food products are wasted annually in India. According to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), around 50 kg of food is wasted in Indian households annually per capita.
“The U.N. General Assembly has designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits & Vegetables (IYFV). This is to raise awareness on cutting food loss and wastage by improving farm production, better cold chain supply and storage and also at the household level to ensure better food security in the country”, says Sreemathy Venkatraman, Clinical dietitian/Wellness nutritionist, BRAINS Hospital, Bengaluru.
Wasting food not only raises ethical and economic concerns, but also has an environmental impac. Hence, a number of new technological solutions are being developed by both industry and academia in our country, to extend the shelf life of food stuff, whether raw or packaged, for reducing this problem of food wastage.
Creating uncompromised solutions
Shelf life is the time duration of the food, throughout which the food quality and its nutrients stay intact, fresh, and safe to consume. Determining the shelf life of processed foods is one of the main problems faced by food companies when launching a product to market, or when modifying some of its ingredients.
At present, various processing and preservation methods are being employed by companies to improve the shelf life of a food product such as pasteurisation, sterilisation, fermentation, ozone treatment, pulse electric field etc.
In addition, nanotechnology has become a huge breakthrough with great potential to promote food preservation. Nanotechnology has also been regarded as a promising tool for growing the economy in near future as well as maintaining the nutritional qualities of the food commodity.
Edible coatings with nanomaterials have also shown increasing potential towards food storage of fruits and vegetables. These coatings hold useful while transportation from factory to retailers and also maintain the nutritional qualities of the food products without causing any physical damage. But all these technologies come with a set of challenges that limits their usage in terms of cost and handling.
“The goal of food preservation is to inhibit any biochemical reactions and to restrict the entry of bacteria or fungi. The technique allows minimisation of wastage with improved shelf life extension. Some of the popular conventional preservation techniques like heating, drying and freezing have been implemented in large industries. However, it has been found that there are certain disadvantages in heat treatment and freezing methods such as food shrinkage, texture and nutrient loss and organic properties leading to a huge overall loss in the food product”, points out Dr P. Senthil Kumar, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Sri Sivasubramaniya Nadar College of Engineering, Chennai.
Although plenty of advanced technologies have been introduced over the years, major strides need to be taken to have a sustainable food system. Availability, access and proper utilisation of food should be well balanced in order to understand the value of food security. It is important to maintain a correct and precise balance of technology with respect to design and cost-effectiveness. As a result, experts are now working on creating uncompromised solutions in order to address this growing concern of food wastage in India.
With an aim to develop solutions that will retain the freshness of fruits and vegetables for a longer period, Chennai-based startup WayCool Foods has signed a one-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Thanjavur based Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology (IIFPT).
In particular, WayCool Foods has invested more than Rs 3 million so far in such industry-academia sustainability initiatives targeting reduction in food wastage through collaboration, technology, and innovation.
“These solutions are targeted at enhancing the shelf life of fresh produce such as tomato, potato, onion, carrot, pomegranate, and apple. We believe that it is critical to develop indigenous solutions that work well in the Indian context and will continue to build such partnerships with premier Indian institutions, in addition to our own R & D work”, mentions Subramanian Akkulan, EVP Innovation, WayCool Foods, Chennai.
The Chennai-based startup has also signed a 3-year umbrella memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the National Design and Research Forum (NDRF). The collaboration is intended to help WayCool in its pursuit to re-imagine the agri-supply chain with the introduction of solutions aimed at constantly enhancing efficiency and reducing food wastage
Scientists at the Mohali-based National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute (NAFBI) have come up with another innovative way to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. They have developed non-toxic and edible composite coatings based on wheat straw hemicellulosic polysaccharide (WP) and stearic acid derivatized oat bran polysaccharide (SAOP) for improving the shelf life.
The scientific team prepared emulsions of the composite and coated them on the surface of samples of apple, peach, and banana. They found that the coating helped to significantly reduce fruit weight loss and softening, and delay ripening. They also helped maintain sensory qualities compared to non-coated fruits.
An Indian patent has been filed for the formulation and an agreement has been signed with New Delhi based R.G. Industries for the commercialisation of this technology.
On the other hand, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT- Kgp) are pursuing a novel study on ozone-assisted cold sterilisation technology towards the shelf stabilisation of sugarcane juice without heat or chemical. The process technology involves ultra-filtering and ozonisation of the freshly extracted microfiltered juice followed by packaging under an aseptic environment.
“Sugarcane juice is a refreshing drink with an enriched nutritional profile. However, the colour and flavour unique to the juice get deteriorated immediately after its extraction due to biological processes of browning and microbial fermentation. Its short shelf life limits its long-term storage and marketing. Thermal treatments used to enhance the shelf life of sugarcane juice destroy its pleasant taste and aroma. Non-thermal methods hold promise in this regard”, says Chirasmita Panigrahi, Research Scholar, Department of Agricultural & Food Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.
With tons of foods being wasted every single day, food preservation has been the need of the hour for extending the shelf life to help feed millions of people globally. But now there is a further need to bridge the gap between food wastage and food preservation techniques in order to increase the shelf life of the various food products. There is also an urgent need to understand the advancements in food preservation techniques that are convenient, optimum and limitless.
Dr Manbeena Chawla