Nov 04 2020

Science and Food in Spain: Two Industries Innovating Together

In this report we’ll take a closer look at some of those research centers in Spain which are working diligently to solve far-reaching problems, where innovation and science meets the food industry and agri-food companies.

Science and Food in Spain: Two Industries Innovating Together. Photo by: Toya Legido/@ICEX.

When you hear the words “Spanish food” and “innovation,” you inevitably think of Ferran Adrià’s molecular gastronomy movement or the many extraordinary restaurants in Spain whose imaginative dishes ensure that they appear on the “best” lists around the world.

Rarely do you think about the dedicated scientists at research centers across the country, together with local companies, working on ambitious food-related projects with a national, regional and even global impact in diverse areas like climate change, sustainability and nutrition.

An innovative product for sugar-free foods

A team of researchers at the Institute for Food Science Research (CIAL), comprised of professionals from the Spanish National Research Council and the Autonomous University of Madrid, has found a way to use sunflower byproducts as a source of pectins, which can be used in several different applications within the food industry. The idea is to use this new ingredient in the production of sugar-free products.

Pectins are popular because they’re considered to be a “safe additive” with no limits as far as consumption goes. As a result, interest in this additive has increased notably in recent years, with several other industries incorporating it into their products.

The team at CIAL has been able to obtain pectins from components of sunflowers discarded by oil producers. As they are low methoxy, they can form gels with little to no sugar. Even better, this soluble fiber can also help strengthen the immune system and reduce the amount of glucose and cholesterol in the blood, according to health professionals.

Reusing agricultural residues

Science and Food in Spain: Two Industries Innovating Together. Photo by: Toya Legido/@ICEX.

Another project, called Pro-Enrich, involves several Spanish organizations and associations, such as Natac Biotech SLOlivar de Segura, and Anecoop Sociedad Cooperativa, together with partners from seven other countries.

The objective of this project is develop a biorefinery approach that can process agricultural residues (olives, tomatoes and citrus fruits, among others) to respond to growing demand around the world for alternative sources of protein.

Among the goals is to develop protocols for producing different ingredients with sufficient purity to be used in food, as well as other industries.

Microalgae to feed the global population

Science and Food in Spain: Two Industries Innovating Together. Photo by: Toya Legido/@ICEX.

Another ambitious project with a far-reaching impact is being led by the Catalan government’s research institute, IRTA, which is leading the ProFuture project, funded by the European Union.

The goal is to address the challenge of increasing food production by 70% to feed the expected global population of 10 billion by the year 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, while also respecting the environment and ecosystems. To do this, efforts are underway to develop better microalgae production technologies, as microalgae is nutritious, protein rich and sustainable.

Four species have been chosen and now project participants will work on developing innovative cultivation techniques with a view to boosting production and reducing costs. The microalgae they harvest will be dried and turned into a powder and then used as an ingredient in food production. They hope to produce several different products: pasta, bread, creamy vegetable soup and broth, vegan sausages and energy bars for athletes.

The Spanish institute is coordinating the participation of 31 partners in Europe, among them businesses, research centers and associations.

Functional foods for seniors

Science and Food in Spain: Two Industries Innovating Together. Photo by: Toya Legido/@ICEX.

ANFACO-CECOPESCA, the National Association of Manufacturers of Canned Fish and Shellfish, is always working on different RDI projects, completing around 75 each year in the food industry.

According to Juan Vieites Baptista de Sousa, the General Secretary, the organization “works to develop new processes and technologies to obtain foods that are both innovative and healthy… and are developed in line with more intelligent and automatic manufacturing that’s more efficient and environmentally friendly.”

One of their most recent projects is AHGAVES, the goal of which is to develop new foods that meet the needs of senior citizens. This involves creating functional and personalized foods, which is considered one of the best ways to meet this population’s needs. The products are developed using a holistic approach, which includes measures such as improving the processes to produce raw materials and analyzing the products’ impact in real hospital environments with clinical studies.

This particular project receives funding through Galicia’s regional government and includes the participation of other organizations.

Making less alcoholic wine

The Department of Food and Agricultural Science at the Madrid Institute of Rural, Agricultural and Food Research and Development (IMIDRA) and the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona recently published the results of a project that aims to reduce wine alcohol levels.

As the alcohol content in wine has increased over the years, in part due to consumer preferences and in part to climate change, one of the challenges facing the winemaking industry is to reduce the alcohol content.

As part of this project, the scientists studied the use of a combination of non-convention and conventional yeasts to try to lower ethanol production. They found that certain strains did indeed could be used to produce wines with less alcohol, focusing specifically on those made with white Malvar grapes, typically found in Madrid. Moreover, they found that certain yeast combinations could yield a wine with less alcohol and positive oenological characteristics.

Olive oil for prevention

In the last year, the Bioactive Compound, Nutrition and Health Group at the Institute of Fat, with the Spanish National Research Council, created an olive oil enriched with oleanolic acid, for which they obtained a patent.

This type of oil has proven useful in preventing Type 2 Diabetes and its effectiveness has been confirmed in the PREDIABOLE (PREvention of DIABetes with OLEanolic acid) Study. The results show that the consumption of this particular type of functional olive oil can reduce the risk in half of developing this disease in prediabetic patients.

Looking to the future

Given the strength of science and technology in Spain and the constantly evolving food landscape, scientists and food industry professionals can be expected to continue to work together to leverage innovation and solve the most pressing problems, at home and around the world.

Text: Samara Kamenecka/@ICEX