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Novel Food: what is it and why is it a sustainable choice

At Maker Faire Rome 2023, we encountered many businesses that have dedicated their work to producing the food of the future. Read the article to find out what new foods await us and what makes them a true green choice.

Novel food is a category of food products that differs from traditional foods in origin, composition or production method. It is one of the most discussed topics of our time because it represents a new, sustainable and original way of looking at the future of global food. Novel food refers to products obtained through new production techniques, ingredients not yet commonly used in the human diet or those derived from unconventional sources. At Maker Faire Rome 2023, the recently concluded innovation festival, we took a look at the foods of the future through some interesting projects such as Spireat, Small Giants, Redefine Meat, ELFO and ROBOFOOD.

Crickets, spirulina, printed meat and – why not? – even edible batteries: these are the concepts we learned about at this edition of Maker Faire Rome. In this article we will look at the stories of these businesses, the opinions of Italians and the characteristics of a new market that continues to grow.

Novel food: markets, curiosity and opinions

Our planet is begging us to rethink our habits: more than a third of greenhouse gases generated by humans comes from food systems. It is, therefore, imperative to rethink processes and products and radically change the daily habits of individual consumers, essential conditions for successfully making the food supply chain more sustainable, as advocated by the UN 2030 Agenda. In this context, novel food is a concrete response to an obvious environmental need. With insects, algae, mushrooms and printed meat, novel products concretely offer a nutritious and highly sustainable solution for our planet today. These foods are advantageous because they are grown (or raised) in systems like greenhouses or photo-bio-reactors, reducing exposure to environmental risks and not requiring excessive consumption of resources or soil. Insects are one of the most debated novel foods because of the cultural resistance they initially found in Western countries. Today, however, there is a lot of curiosity among Italians as well, so much so that according to research conducted by the University of Bergamo (Insect Food and Consumers), 1 in 3 Italians would be curious to try insect-based food. This sector is clearly on the rise, especially since 2018 European legislation (EU Reg 2015/2283) legalizing the consumption and farming of insects and derived flours went into effect. According to Bloomberg’s recent estimate, the industry is set to receive investments totaling 3 billion by 2025. To cite another example, spirulina algae is known for its high-protein properties and sustainable production cycle. That of algae in general is a business currently worth $2.7 billion, growing by 4.2 percent through 2025. All these foods can help solve the problem of the environmental impact of the food supply chain while also ensuring a good nutritional profile for end consumers.

During this edition of Maker Faire Rome, we met with many entities involved in the food of the future. Here are some interesting stories from the festival of innovation!

Spireat: the success of spirulina algae

Spireat is a company that produces and sells organic Italian spirulina in various formats. Spireat’s story is an example of a circular economy that has given rise to a company dedicated to the enhancement of spirulina algae in the Italian diet.

“If anyone was wondering what spirulina is, it is a microalgae called blue-green algae. The advantage of spirulina in its production is mainly that it is a microalga that is produced with zero impact. It absorbs CO2 as it grows, twice its weight each time. For every kilogram of spirulina produced, it absorbs 1.8 kilograms of CO2. This is what spirulina does.”

The founder, biologist and postdoctoral researcher Antonio Idà said. After 15 years of experience in Europe studying microalgae, he decided to return to Italy with the goal of making spirulina a common component in the daily diet of Italians, not only as a supplement but also as an ingredient in recipes of all kinds. He considers spirulina a food from which he can develop snacks, energy bars, drinks and yogurt thanks to the valuable contribution of the company’s food specialist area. His vision is centered on a zero-impact, zero-waste approach that leads him to collaborate with Andrea Schievano, an expert in microalgae engineering, to create patents and systems that guarantee the highest quality Spirulina Spireat while ensuring minimal environmental impact. Stefano Lanzoni, an agricultural businessman, joined the team as Spireat’s first “farmer,” hosting the greenhouse at his farm and helping to supply thermal energy through a biogas plant.

“We have structured a process in a circular economy whereby we went and took back all the waste heat that was in a biogas, channeled it into a greenhouse, and this allowed us to produce spirulina 365 days a year,” Idà adds. “Not content with that, downstream, we also recover the process water which we feed into the fields, closing the production cycle without waste.

At Maker Faire Rome 2023 Spireat is an example of a real technological advancement that sustainably produces spirulina combined with a project regarding the optimization of daylight on productions in open-tank systems for microalgae production, improving production performance and return on investment.

SmallGiant teaches us why we should choose insects

Insects are the future of food, says SmallGiant, the Italian company developing snacks, pasta and meat substitutes with insect flours. But why are insects a great choice? For starters, they are an incredible source of protein. Crickets, for example, contain the same amount of protein in  100g edible portion (20.1g) that is found in 100g of pork, higher than that found in 100g of chicken (19.9) and just below 100g of beef (20.6). And 100g of crickets contain much more iron (5.5 mg) than all other meats. Another very good reason for choosing insects is the growing awareness about the incredible environmental damage caused by intensive farming, and meat consumption in general. At a time in history when it is important to value one’s food choices, choosing insects is a completely sustainable choice for several reasons:

  • Crickets produce less than 0.1% of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock.
  • Crickets require only 20 percent of the water needed by cows to produce the same amount of protein, in part because they hydrate directly from food and consume much less water than vertebrates.
  • Cricket farming is an intelligent use of land. Traditional farming is a major threat to biodiversity and requires immense tracts of land, often obtained through deforestation.

Insects are, in short, the most promising candidate to address many of the food industry challenges of the near future. Founded by Francesco Majno and Edoardo Imparato, Small Giants was created in London in 2021, starting with Cracker Bites, mini-protein crackers with cricket flour, which were an immediate success. Over the years, the team has worked to develop and produce new food products with insect flour. Today, the company’s goal is to introduce insects into the Western diet as an alternative source of highly nutritious and sustainable protein.

Printed meat: an alternative to beef and more!

Every Italian wastes an average of 27 kg of food per year, according to the latest report by the Waste Watcher Observatory. This is a figure that should give us pause for thought and prompt us not only to review our habits, but also to find ingenious solutions that, at any point in the supply chain, prevent the waste of such huge food resources. In this context, 3D printing makes it possible for anyone to salvage waste, making it take on another form: from peels to edible agricultural waste. This practice, as distant and avant-garde as it may seem, is already on our plates. 3D food is, in fact, already used by many chefs but also by many companies to produce plant-based meat, a viable alternative to animal meat of any origin. We, tried it at Maker Faire Rome 2023, thanks to the work of Redefine Meat, an Israeli startup specializing in creating printed meat, imported to Italy by Impact Food. But how does the process of printing meat work and what is the goal? The plant-based meat in question is made through a printing process that can replicate the muscle structure of cattle, including the marbling present in different cuts of meat. What makes this innovation even more amazing is the fact that instead of ink, ingredients made from legumes, grains, vegetable fats, flavorings, natural colors and water are used, ensuring faithful reproduction of both muscle tissue and meat fat. The first tasting experience can disorient the palate precisely because of the texture that manages to fool the brain. Printed meat has a texture that can resemble various meat preparations, from crispy exterior to chewy interior. This technology has finally brought this plant-based alternative to Italy. Thanks to the 3D printer, which creates a texture similar to the collagen, fat veins and muscle fibers found in meat, this innovative solution not only offers an authentic flavor but also a texture that is remarkably close to that of traditional meat.

We got to try the printed meat at Maker Faire Rome 2023, and it was truly delicious!

Edible electronics: the first edible battery

During Maker Faire Rome 2023, we also encountered the future of … edible electronics. This discipline aims to develop electronic devices that are biodegradable and easily assimilated by the human body. This year, booth E7 hosted the world’s first fully edible rechargeable battery prototype, developed by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) team under the leadership of Mario Caironi. This extraordinary breakthrough represents a significant achievement in the field of edible electronics, a growing area of research that aims to create technologies that are safe to ingest, environmentally friendly and economically sustainable, using common food ingredients and additives. This edible battery could be used to power diagnostic tools, monitor food quality, and even inside edible robots. IIT is currently involved in two EU-funded projects, ELFO and ROBOFOOD, both of which aim to develop edible electronic materials and components for applications in medicine, food quality control and robotics. Valerio Galli, a researcher in the field of materials engineering and nanotechnology, is involved in the RoboFood project within the PME group, led by Mario Caironi at the CNST (National Center on Materials Science) at Politecnico di Milano. His research focuses on the creation of edible energy sources, such as supercapacitors and batteries, paving the way for new perspectives in edible electronics

 

Maker Faire Rome – The European Edition has been committed since its very first editions to make innovation accessible and usable to all, with the aim of not leaving anyone behind. Its blog is always updated and full of opportunities and inspiration for makers, makers, startups, SMEs and all the curious ones who wish to enrich their knowledge and expand their business, in Italy and abroad.

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