April, 2022

Food safety in plant-based food

According to the FAO’s recent report ““Thinking about the future of food safety” (January, 2022), about 14% of the food produced is lost during the production before it reaches the retailer or consumer. Part of this huge loss is due to several factors: from food contamination problems to climate change. These factors are only then related to agricultural production in terms of yield, but also affect food safety. For example, changes in temperatures and the frequency of rainfall and drought periods are affecting the bioavailability and persistence of foodborne pathogens.

These issues, along with the ever-increasing global population, need to be taken into account by the food industry when looking at the changing purchasing habits of consumers, who, leaning towards healthier sustainable food choices, are showing a growing interest in plant-based foods, including more and more plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, eggs and seafood in their daily diets. Other alternative food sources are also beginning to gain attention, such as algae and edible insects.

But what are the food safety implications to considered in plant-based products?

With dietary patterns shifting toward those rich in plant-based foods, we need to pay attention to several factors, such as allergen and anti-nutrient intake.

The protein sources typically used in plant-based products are legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and tubers. These products are generally fortified with plant-based fats (canola, coconut, soybean, and sunflower oils) additives such as natural colors and flavors, and vitamins or minerals to enhance their nutritional profile. However, from a public health perspective, there has been little research on the nutritional aspects of plant-based alternatives. Some plant-based beverages are not suitable substitutes for animal-based dairy products due to limited nutrient diversity. In addition, essential minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium may be less bioavailable in some of the plant-based ingredients found in alternatives.

The food safety implications of plant-derived foods depend on the soil, how the plants are harvested, stored, transported, and processed to obtain the protein ingredients, the handling of the products after processing, and at the retail level. In addition, plant-based ingredients have different macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat, protein) components and concentrations than animal-based products, which can lead to variation in the types and levels of microbial contamination.

For example, the FAO report points out that the high moisture content and neutral pH of plant-based meat alternatives can provide a beneficial environment for pathogen growth. In terms of storage, to prevent the proliferation of microbial activity the FAO suggestion is to adopt a storage and handling system for plant-based meat alternatives similar to that of conventional meat.

From the FAO report, it is also highlighted that ingredients such as, for example, soy leghemoglobin in plant-based meat alternatives, which is added to enhance the “meat” flavor of the product is still being investigated, particularly for the correlation between high heme iron intake and increased heme iron stores in the body, which could lead to increased iron stores in the body and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Food of the future

As plant-based diets expand, there is a need for greater awareness about the introduction of ingredients and foods that were not typically consumed before. Although commonly known ingredients approved for human consumption are used in most plant-based alternatives, gray areas still remain on issues such as nomenclature and labeling. Nevertheless, plant-based alternatives have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of food production, which could have important public health, environmental, and regulatory implications.

With the global population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the pressure on agri-food systems to feed the world is high, with the goal of providing sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food for all, while staying within the limits provided by our planet. New ingredients and technologies may be the key to the food of the future, aiming for sustainable, and food-safe, production for the good of the planet and people.