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Q&A: The future of our food: flavored vegetables, cricket powder, and violet water

Q&A: The future of our food: flavored vegetables, cricket powder, and violet water

Posting in Food | From Issue 18 May 19 & 26, 2014

Food scientist Kantha Shelke discusses two of her industry’s hottest topics: flavor and protein.

At just three years old, Kantha Shelke knew what she wanted to do with her life.

"I wanted to feed the world," she says. "My idea for my future was to teach and educate people about food, and also to create foods that would be good for them."

Today Shelke works and teaches at the intersection of food science and its applications for health and wellness. A principal of the food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC, she previously held senior positions at Ben & Jerry's, Continental Baking Company and ACNielsen. She's also a popular speaker and has shared her expertise at both national and international conferences focused on food.

Over the years, Shelke has lived, worked and eaten all over the world. Northern Canada? She had raw arctic char with a squeeze of lemon for breakfast. Japan introduced her to seaweed wraps, flakes and powder. In Africa, she spent many days eating only rice and beans. The scientist who proudly declares that she'll "eat anything that's not bolted down" spoke with us about what's happening in her field.

What trends are you seeing with flavor right now?

Flavor technology, which first came into the food industry as a way of making foods taste better and masking the fact of processing, has grown up tremendously. Today flavor chemists can take a simple sugar and water solution and lead consumers to believe that they're drinking freshly squeezed orange or strawberry juice, simply with the addition of flavor molecules. But flavor has also got a tremendous potential to help consumers in this current and ongoing interest in health and wellness. Many foods that are good for us often taste bad -- for example, vegetables. In some countries, young children in particular just cannot get past that. Flavor chemists are going to help tremendously by changing the flavor of certain vegetables and making them more palatable without affecting their health benefits.

How will they do that?

By finding what flavors complement each of these vegetables and using that to mask the bitterness. There's work being done to make broccoli taste better to children, and it's simply with the addition of masking agents.

How will that look from the consumer side?

The potential is to be able to package broccoli and vegetables like it -- cabbage, broccolini, asparagus -- either with a coating or in conjunction with a little sachet that you add while you steam the product or microwave it. It would simply coat the product and maybe make it taste very buttery or like it has been sautéed, but most importantly, whatever compound is added will mask the bitterness that some of us are particularly sensitive to.

What else do you see happening with flavoring?

We eat with our eyes and noses before we ever eat with our mouths, so there's now a movement in flavor companies to look at aromas that appeal to people and make healthy foods seem more appealing.

Which aromas do we find most attractive?

Vanilla, butter, maple, light florals. Drinking plain water's very difficult for some people. When it's flavored with violets and rose essence, it becomes tastier. People are also looking for flavors that can help us get satiated faster. Roasted almonds are very satiating. It's very difficult to eat past an ounce of almonds. If they're ground up, it satiates you even faster. It's also seen with chocolate. A good chocolate, all you need is one bite. It's bad chocolate that you can eat a lot of.

Some people are uncomfortable with flavors that are produced in a lab rather than by nature. How do you address their concerns?

If you have a synthetic flavor, people frown on it. But today our technology has grown so much that we are able to get vanilla from paper-mill waste. With the advance in the acceptance of prepared foods, and with the growing population, in a few years, it may not be economically viable to consume flavors that are purely extracted. We won't have enough strawberries for strawberry flavor and we won't have enough vanilla for vanilla flavor. These are natural resources, and if you want to consider sustainability as part of our future, we must come to terms with how we are flavoring our foods.

That concept has to be brought to consumers so they understand it's not the vanilla that flavors their coffee or tea, but a certain compound in vanilla that we can also find in mushrooms or fermented rice. That is one way to help educate consumers who are scared about what is being added to their food.

What else is happening in your field right now?

Protein is a ticket to saving a lot of foods. Historically, we've gotten our protein from legumes, meats and eggs, but today, for a number of reasons, some of these proteins are not accessible to us or not good for us. Meat is getting very expensive. In 2050, steaks will be to us what caviar is to us today. It will be that expensive to buy meat. So people are looking for something different.

Companies are making egg- and meat-like products from plant sources, and there's also a new source of protein on the market: insect protein. There's a squeamish factor there for some people. For people struggling with that, there are companies in the U.S. today taking consumer favorites -- chocolate bars, brownies, muffins, cookies -- and enhancing them with insect flour. The addition of insect flour raises the protein content. It's also low-fat, nutritious, and you can control what the insects eat, so they're a very clean source of protein.

Is there anything we should keep an eye out for on the high-end food market?

Ant eggs -- escamoles. They've been a part of the diet in Mexico for a very long time, and they are delectable. They look like plump grains of rice. Unlike cricket flour, which you're trying to mask, people reach out for ant eggs because they have a very mild, nutty, distinct taste -- sort of like caviar. If you've had salmon roe in sushi, ant eggs are not far behind. I believe we'll be seeing them on a lot of upscale food menus in the coming years.

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Photo: DanPaterno.com

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure