1/15/2021

7 ways science has improved food variety

Written By David Pinzon  Image of one head of cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli

As parents, we sometimes tend to think about the good old days, when we played in the street all day and sat down on the curb with an ice cream purchased from the neighborhood truck. While I’m nostalgic for the past, from a food science point of view, what we have today far outpaces what was available even two decades ago.

During the last 100 years, the variety in food choices has gone from minimal and reserved for the wealthy to widespread and affordable. Even though this is not true everywhere in the world, agriculture innovation is helping ensure everyone has access to a variety of food options.

Feeding kids the healthiest possible food is top of mind for all parents; however, it is often easier said than done. With my first daughter, who is now 4, I prioritized healthy food options when she started eating. I focused on just a few foods I knew were good for her that she liked. However, I missed a very important point: variety. My good intentions backfired, as she started hating her favorites, such as broccoli and spinach.

Luckily, scientists have created innovations that allow us to choose among a variety of foods while maintaining good eating habits. There are several important advancements that have helped us have access to a variety of healthy food options at affordable prices.

7 innovations that have improved food variety

  • Breeding: Do your kids like kale but not cabbage? Or maybe broccoli but not cauliflower? No problem, they are all the same species, Brassica oleracea, for which breeders selected variants of the plants. This allows us to have a wider variety of options out of the same plant species, while benefiting from a similar nutritional profile when the same part of the plant is eaten (for example, broccoli versus cauliflower).
  • Frozen food: Flash-freezing allows us to have meals that include nutrient-dense ingredients that may not be local or seasonal. This includes salmon flown for thousands of kilometers or having enough turkey in stock for the holidays. Frozen foods also helped us to have the capacity to afford more healthy options. Cauliflower rice is a great example of something that has a longer shelf life when frozen.
  • Food fortification: Not everyone has access to enough variety of foods. Fortifying staple foods allow us to supplement our diet. Great examples are iodine in salt, vitamins in milk and folic acid in multiple cereals, bread and pasta. Folic acid can help women have the right nutrients in their body in case they get pregnant, as folic acid is critical in the neural tube development in utero. It is also beneficial to men, supporting heart health.
  • Pest management: Keeping plants healthy and growing to their maximum potential means they are going to produce more on the same amount of land. This translates to lower food prices and greater variety.
  • Preservatives: While grocery shopping daily for meals would be ideal, it often isn’t practical. Food preservatives allow us to keep food fresh longer, making it easier for that once-a-week grocery trip.
  • Trait modification: Food variety is not always a matter of healthy options. Many times, it enables us to perfect the art of cooking. Think about apples. There are numerous options specific for snacking, salads, baking, juicing and cooking. And now we even have access to an apple that doesn’t brown, the Arctic apple, a GMO variety that helps reduce food waste.
  • Processing: Baby carrots aren’t harvested that way. They are created when normal carrots are cut to the perfect size and with rounded edges, making it a perfect snack for kids and adults.

Overall, we have plenty of choices, and as long as we keep trusting science advancements, food is just going to get better. I can’t wait for 50 years from now, when our kids may think of how, in the old days, their food choices were limited.

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