A healthy approach
Smart ingredients, added functionality and nutraceuticals are driving new processes and products in the agrifood industry
The focus of the Food for Health Ireland technology centre is on milk and developing innovative ways to add value to it by delivering improved health.
Ireland has developed a massive agrifood industry that generates annual exports worth €10 billion and employs tens of thousands. It is an industry that has been built through the application of research, creativity and innovation.
These are the ingredients needed to keep the sector growing. They lead to new ideas, new processes, new products and more efficiency. Innovation can open up new markets, keep growth on the agenda and sustain companies even during downturns that can leave other sectors struggling.
“You can anticipate emerging markets when you are involved in research but typically the sector develops through small advances,” says Dr Frank O’Mara, director of research at Teagasc.
This is happening at the moment in the area of smart ingredients, nutraceuticals and adding functionality to an existing product, he says. “Building in functionality is an area that we are heavily immersed in.”
The innovations that are driving probiotics, health-promoting yoghurts and better cheeses arise through research, he argues, hence Teagasc’s close associations with University College Cork’s Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) and with researchers at Cork Institute of Technology.
“The research helps explain how your health is influenced by your diet. There is a lot of evidence that your health is affected by your diet. The question is how do we make products that turn that to an advantage,” he says.
The science proceeds with one eye on the lab bench and the other on how discoveries might be used. “The work always has an application in mind. The APC is strategic, basic research by nature, but we are always looking at how we can exploit discoveries for new applications,” Dr O’Mara says.
This combination of research, innovation and market interest is most readily seen in the Food for Health Ireland (FHI) technology centre established with the backing of Enterprise Ireland. Its focus is on milk and developing innovative ways to add value to it by delivering improved health.
It is an industry/academic combine with the company involvement helping to keep the research work close to and relevant to market. It involves University College Cork, University College Dublin, NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, Dublin City University, University of Limerick, Teagasc and Moorepark Food Research Centre on the academic side. Company engagement includes the Irish Dairy Board, Carbery Group, Dairygold Food Ingredients Ltd, Glanbia plc and Kerry Group plc.
The goal is to deliver functional food ingredients and products. It pursues an “intelligent milk mining” programme that searches for valuable ingredients, for example components of milk that promote infant development or boost immunity or support healthy ageing. The work draws on basic research expertise, but quickly brings products to market that are safe and deliver benefits.
But efforts to innovate work from both ends of the agrifood chain. It is not just about the laboratories and the scientists, innovation is also being applied at farm level, says Dr Tom Kelly, director of knowledge transfer at Teagasc.
In this case on-farm issues that need resolution are tackled through research and the results are applied at farm level. It could be something that arose from industry or from the farmer, but innovation is applied to fix it and make improvements.
“We are probably a unique organisation in Europe,” Dr Kelly says. “On one side we have an advice and education service and on the other basic research. But there is a lot of interaction between the research staff and the farm advisers.”
For example, if a new technology is being promoted for use on farms, an adviser will explain its impact on the farm and the researchers will be able to assess the effectiveness of the technology. The need for innovation touches all farming areas including breeding, dairy, sheep, beef, the general environment, forestry, even farmer education, Dr Kelly says.
“The ideas come in different ways. Over the last eight to 10 years we have been using stakeholder ‘consultative groups’ for each of the major farm enterprises. They will include leading farmers along with people from industry, academics, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture,” he says.
“It is a way to try and feed in new ideas. If they work we can be more confident in going out to the farmers and advising they take up the ideas.”