Designing backwards helps food industry move forwards

How can a food producer develop a product that is not only tasty, healthy, environmentally friendly and safe but also economically viable? Experts from Wageningen University & Research have set about addressing those questions. The result: a multi-criteria assessment platform based on reverse engineering that lets producers make more informed choices.

The rationale behind reverse engineering is to start from the intended product and then work backwards step by step to the design, says Hasmik Hayrapetyan of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. She is the leader of the Reverse Engineering project, which falls under the KB programme ‘Healthy and safe food system’. Hayrapetyan: “In reverse engineering, you look at all aspects of the food supply chain, from the raw materials to the finished product. That kind of overall picture is becoming increasingly important, especially given current social trends. Consumers want to make more responsible choices, picking products that are healthy and have the least impact on the climate and the environment. You also have to consider food safety requirements and the interests of the industry itself.”

When a company understands all these issues right from the start, they can act on them better, explains project manager Miriam Quataert (Wageningen Food & Biobased Research). “Including a wide range of aspects in the design phase means you end up with a better end product. Compare it to building a house: if you get the design done entirely by an architect and only look at the technical feasibility and safety when construction starts, you’ll have to modify the entire design. Which costs time and money, as well as leaving you with a less attractive building. You want to avoid having to change all kinds of things during the process, let alone when the product’s already on the market. Reverse engineering lets you lay the foundations for a nicely balanced design that’s based on carefully considered choices.”

Including a wide range of aspects in the design phase means you end up with a better end product
Miriam Quataert

The product that the researchers used for the project was a vegetarian burger. To include as many aspects as possible, experts from various Wageningen research institutes joined forces. Hayrapetyan: “Plant Research, Food Safety Research and Economic Research are all involved in the project in addition to Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. The goal was to develop a platform that would let a company consider multiple criteria carefully when choosing ingredients for – in this case – a burger. In the end, we chose six criteria: 1. nutritional value and taste, 2. environmental impact, 3. chemical risks, 4. microbiological risks, 5. the economic viability and 6. consumers’ preferences.”

Databases and models

For each criterion, the WUR experts then studied databases and models that would let them quantify and compare ingredients. Hayrapetyan: “For the environmental impact, we used the CO2 emissions, the land use and the water consumption, for example. Not just for growing the crop either – the transport, processing, packaging and storage were included too. For the economic value, we look at aspects such as costs and revenues, and the economic robustness.

Being a microbiologist, my role was collecting data about contamination risks. That all gives you rankings for each criterion, telling you the most sustainable ingredient, or the healthiest, safest, most profitable or most preferred by consumers. Then it’s down to the producer to decide which of these criteria they value the most and which ingredients they want to use.”

To get a good picture of consumers’ preferences, researchers from Wageningen Economic Research gathered data through a survey, explains Hayrapetyan. “People were asked what they thought about plant-based ingredients, for instance. They were able to give scores on a scale from one to seven, for example on whether they thought something was healthy or sustainable and how likely they were to eat it. Interestingly, the more familiar people were with an ingredient, the higher the rating they gave it for health and safety. Products with commonplace ingredients are therefore more readily accepted, although that product may not be the healthiest or the most environmentally friendly. When people know the new ingredient, the chance of them accepting it is most likely better.”

To make the vegetarian burger case study even more realistic, the project was done in collaboration with the food producer Vivera. Involving industry players in the development of the multi-criteria platform has several advantages, says Quataert. “For us as scientists, it’s important to validate the models and get feedback about the platform – are we investigating the right criteria, is the output usable, or do companies need more explanations and advice? The industry provides us with data and information about which ingredients are used and how the production process is set up. A company can also say in advance which criteria are most important to them, so we can use that for ranking.”

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This animation explains how the Multi-criteria Assessment Platform (MCAP) for reverse engineering and food product design works and how to take part in its development.

Up-coming ingredients

As well as helping companies make choices, the platform also has an inspirational effect, Hayrapetyan tells us. “A company may well be pretty much fixated on the financial side of their product at first, but if we then show that the most profitable option is the least sustainable, that can be a wake-up call that creates new opportunities. We also consider up-coming ingredients in the rankings, such as protein from rapeseed, sunflower seeds and quinoa. We search for information about those options too. They might not be able or willing to make use of these options straight away, but they may in the long run.”

If we show that the most profitable option is the least sustainable, that can be a wake-up call for a producer
Hasmik Hayrapetyan

Improving existing product

Although the project looked specifically at developing a plant-based burger, the platform is also suitable for other food products, including drinks. Hayrapetyan: “It’s about knowing in broad terms what kind of product you’re aiming to put on the market, so that we can use data and models to work out what options are available in terms of the ingredients, as well as the steps in the production process and the properties of the final product. It doesn’t even have to be a new product: you can also look at improving an existing one. There’s always something that can be made more efficient or more sustainable.”

Constantly developing

The platform itself is constantly developing, notes Quataert in conclusion. “We can add any number of new components and functionalities, such as taste and texture, or the impact of side streams from a particular product. We also want to digitalise the platform further and integrate the criteria even better with each other. The greatest win so far is the cooperation, both between research disciplines and between science and industry. Working together is the only way we can achieve a future-proof food industry.”