Key Interview: Innovating with Plants & Bridging the Gap Between Plant and Synthetic Molecules

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28 Mar 2017 --- The trend towards more natural, cleaner label products is nothing new, yet the innovation side of the trend continues to surprise and delight the industry. Kemin are certainly leaders in innovation, and today Stefaan Van Dyck, the President of the food technologies division talks to NutritionInsight about bridging the gap between synthetic and natural preservatives and how plant technology can both promote  freshness of food and protect the nutritional value of food products in a way that will appeal to the modern customer.

Food Safety’s Role in Nutrition
Being specialists in shelf life and safety of food products, Kemin has built its business by ensuring that food is kept safe for consumption for as long as possible. Van Dyck explains by doing this, the company also plays a key role in helping to maintain the nutritious elements of food.

“Instead of adding a certain ingredient for a certain benefit to the human body, we add a functional ingredient to the food, which preserves the food and its original quality,” he explains.

“Nevertheless, it has a big impact on the nutrients and other beneficial effects of the food because of course if a vegetable is aging, it may lose its vitamins. Also during preparation such as deep-freezing, there also might be vitamin loss during its shelf life.”

He continues, “If you have a breakfast cereal with added vitamins and minerals and other beneficial ingredients, the consumer needs to know that this added value will remain during the shelf life - although this is not so visual, so the protection of the nutritional value will probably need to be demonstrated by doing a lab analysis.”

“So it’s not that we add nutritional benefits,” Van Dyck says, “But it’s about protecting all nutrition components as well as taste, shelf life, colour and food safety.”

Van Dyck explains how the recent natural food trend has presented some good opportunities for the company to enhance this offering.

“Consumers desire more natural ingredients, so from this standing there is a lot of opportunity to develop products and to offer solutions to overcome all these new shelf life issues that are appearing.”

He adds that, “interest in products that are non-GMO, naturally sourced, and renewable is expanding globally.”

“Whereas now it’s a bit more prominent in Western Europe, those cleaner ingredients trends are also moving into the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, so we’re seeing a lot of opportunity to expand.”

Innovating with Plants
Van Dyck explains how Kemin has been working for over 2 decades with plant technology to find natural solutions for the food industry.

“We have a research group that does nothing else but develop plants,” he says. 

“If we have a certain customer need, a problem which often can be solved with a synthetic solution, we explore if there could be a natural molecule that could be used to do the same, and then we look at how are we going to harvest it from nature.”

“Then we look at different plants that can be used, which contain that molecule - we find the best plant to grow in order to harvest that molecule in the most efficient way.” 

Van Dyck explains how Kemin has always had a very strong focus on quality and understanding how its products work. 

“If you don’t understand how products work at the molecular level, you cannot support your customers with questions they have on the application.”

“This gives enormous challenges when you look at more natural products, because when you derive something from nature, there is a lot of variability.”

For Kemin, the solution was a simple one.

“For the specific functionality of a food product, it needs to be the same, and the only way to do that is to develop your own plants,” explains Van Dyck

“If you do this, you know exactly how it behaves and you’re able to get the same product again and again with limited variety.”

“By using conventional breeding techniques we create specific non-GMO clones to control this, we can develop products with consistent functionality.”

“We have our own proprietary plants and control the entire chain from developing those plants, extracting the molecules out of those plants, making formulations, blending those and then applying them.”

“So from seed to final extract, we are completely vertically integrated for rosemary, spearmint, oregano - so we are continuously working on certain functionalities and there will be new launches with new plants and new molecules in the future.”

Bridging the Gap Between Synthetic and Natural
The forward thinking plant innovation doesn’t come as cheap as synthetic alternatives, and Kemin understands that for now - many manufacturers and consumers aren’t ready to front the added cost to get totally natural molecules. 

“There’s always a certain price tag from moving to a more natural, more innovative product - and consumers need to be willing to pay the price tag,” says Van Dyck.

This has inspired Kemin to create a product range that can bridge the price gap during the earlier days of innovation.

“We’ve been working on semi natural products which are moving away from synthetic products,” Van Dyck tells us.

“An example of this is a version of vitamin C, which - although may not be natural, and is chemically produced - is a molecule known in nutrition, and the innovation can help to bridge the gap between natural and synthetic.”

“It also helps producers manage the cost of their products going from synthetic to a more natural solution which isn’t completely plant derived.”

“It’s possible to bridge that gap a little bit, making the move from one side to the other without the cost implications.”

Protecting Fresh Food & Reducing Food Waste 
Looking forward, in terms of both plant innovations, combined with more holistic, challenges the food industry is facing, the future certainly looks interesting for Kemin.

A shift in focus to protecting the shelf life of fresh produce presents the company with even more opportunities.

“Historically, we have worked a lot in processed foods,” explains Van Dyck. 

“Now there is a trend to move towards fresher produce, and there is a shelf life opportunity there – for example how to keep bananas and avocados fresher for longer.”

He also notes that, “Food waste is a key area for us.”

“Looking at the amount of food that is still wasted because it doesn’t stay fresh long enough is of course a big challenge.”

“If we could convert all wasted food to eaten, this would have a big impact on the amount of food that’s available, so from a philosophical view point, if we can make sure all food can maintain its original quality, look and feel, we can make some really big steps forward.”

“There are quite a few challenges in the food industry,” finalizes Van Dyck. 

“I think in the food safety area, synthetic ingredients are still being used, and to find good natural ingredients there is a key opportunity for us.”

by Hannah Gardiner

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