How Microplastics Are Infiltrating the Food You Eat

Isabelle Gerretsen wrote . . . . . . . . .

Plastic pollution is one of the defining legacies of our modern way of life, but it is now so widespread it is even finding its way into fruit and vegetables as they grow.
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Microplastics have infiltrated every part of the planet. They have been found buried in Antarctic sea ice, within the guts of marine animals inhabiting the deepest ocean trenches, and in drinking water around the world. Plastic pollution has been found on beaches of remote, uninhabited islands and it shows up in sea water samples across the planet. One study estimated that there are around 24.4 trillion fragments of microplastics in the upper regions of the world’s oceans.

But they aren’t just ubiquitous in water – they are spread widely in soils on land too and can even end up in the food we eat. Unwittingly, we may be consuming tiny fragments of plastic with almost every bite we take.

In 2022, analysis by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental non-profit, found that sewage sludge has contaminated almost 20 million acres (80,937sq km) of US cropland with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), often called “forever chemicals”, which are commonly found in plastic products and do not break down under normal environmental conditions.

Sewage sludge is the byproduct left behind after municipal wastewater is cleaned. As it is expensive to dispose of and rich in nutrients, sludge is commonly used as organic fertiliser in the US and Europe. In the latter, this is in part due to EU directives promoting a circular waste economy. An estimated 8-10 million tonnes of sewage sludge is produced in Europe each year, and roughly 40% of this is spread on farmland.

Due to this practice, European farmland could be the biggest global reservoir of microplastics, according to a study by researchers at Cardiff University. This means between 31,000 and 42,000 tonnes of microplastics, or 86 trillion to 710 trillion microplastic particles, contaminate European farmland each year.

The researchers found that up to 650 million microplastic particles, measuring between 1mm and 5mm (0.04in-0.2in), entered one wastewater treatment plant in south Wales, in the UK, every day. All these particles ended up in the sewage sludge, making up roughly 1% of the total weight, rather than being released with the clean water.

The number of microplastics that end up on farmland “is probably an underestimation,” says Catherine Wilson, one of the study’s co-authors and deputy director of the Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University. “Microplastics are everywhere and [often] so tiny that we can’t see them.”

And microplastics can stay there for a long time too. One recent study by soil scientists at Philipps-University Marburg found microplastics up to 90cm (35in) below the surface on two agricultural fields where sewage sludge had last been applied 34 years ago. Ploughing also caused the plastic to spread into areas where the sludge had not been applied.

The microplastics’ concentration on farmland soils in Europe is similar to the amount found in ocean surface waters, says James Lofty, the lead author of the Cardiff study and a PhD research student at the Hydro-environmental Research Centre.

The UK has some of the highest concentrations of microplastics in Europe, with between 500 and 1,000 microplastic particles are spread on farmland there each year, according to Wilson and Lofty’s research.

As well as creating a large reservoir of microplastics on land, the practice of using sewage sludge as fertiliser is also exacerbating the plastics crisis in our oceans, adds Lofty. Eventually the microplastics will end up in waterways, as rain washes the top layer of soil into rivers or washes them into groundwater. “The major source of [plastic] contamination in our rivers and oceans is from runoff,” he says.

One study by researchers in Ontario, Canada, found that 99% of microplastics were transported away from where the sludge was initially dumped into aquatic environments.

Environmental contamination

Before they are washed away, however, microplastics can leach toxic chemicals into the soil. Not only are they made from potentially harmful chemicals that can be released into the environment as they break down, microplastics can also absorb other toxic substances, essentially allowing them to hitch a ride onto agricultural land where they can leach into the soil, according to Lofty.

A report by the UK’s Environment Agency, which was subsequently revealed by the environmental campaign group Greenpeace, found that sewage waste destined for English farmland was contaminated with pollutants including dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health”.

A 2020 experiment by Kansas University agronomist Mary Beth Kirkham found that plastic serves as a vector for plant uptake of toxic chemicals such as cadmium. “In the plants where cadmium was in the soil with plastic, the wheat leaves had much, much more cadmium than in the plants that grew without plastic in the soil,” Kirkham said at the time.

Research also shows that microplastics can stunt the growth of earthworms and cause them to lose weight. The reasons for this weight loss aren’t fully understood, but one theory is that microplastics may obstructs earthworms’ digestive tracts, limiting their ability to absorb nutrients and so limiting their growth. This has a negative impact on the wider environment, too, the researchers say, as earthworms play a vital role in maintaining soil health. Their burrowing activity aerates the soil, prevents erosion, improves water drainage and recycles nutrients.

Plastic particles can also contaminate food crops directly. A 2020 study found microplastics and nanoplastics in fruit and vegetables sold by supermarkets and in produce sold by local sellers in Catania in Sicily, Italy. Apples were the most contaminated fruit, and carrots had the highest levels of microplastics among the sampled vegetables.

According to research by Willie Peijnenburg, professor of environmental toxicology and biodiversity at Leiden University in the Netherlands, crops absorb nanoplastic particles – minuscule fragments measuring between 1-100nm in size, or about 1,000 to 100 times smaller than a human blood cell – from surrounding water and soil through tiny cracks in their roots.

Analysis revealed that most of the plastics accumulated in the plant roots, with only a very small amount travelling up to the shoots. “Concentrations in the leaves are well below 1%,” says Peijnenburg. For leafy vegetables such as lettuces and cabbage, the concentrations of plastic would likely then be relatively low, but for root vegetables such as carrots, radishes and turnips, the risk of consuming microplastics would be greater, he warns.

Another study by Peijnenburg and his colleagues found that in both lettuce and wheat, the concentration of microplastics was 10 times lower than in the surrounding soil. “We found that only the smallest particles are taken up by the plants and the big ones are not,” says Peijnenburg.

This is reassuring, says Peijnenburg. However, many microplastics will slowly degrade and break down into nanoparticles, providing a “good source for plant uptake,” he adds.

It will take decades before plastics are fully removed from the environment – Willie Peijnenburg
The uptake of the plastic particles did not seem to stunt the growth of the crops, according to Peijnenburg’s research. But what effect this accumulation of plastic in our food has on our own health is less clear.

Further research is needed to understand this, says Peijnenburg, especially as the problem will only get bigger.

“It will take decades before plastics are fully removed from the environment,” he says. “Even if the risk is currently not very high, it’s not a good idea to have persistent chemicals [on farmland]. They will pile up and then they might form a risk.”

Health impacts

While the impact of ingesting plastics on human health is not yet fully understood, there is already some research that suggests it could be harmful. Studies show that chemicals added during the production of plastics can disrupt the endocrine system and the hormones that regulate our growth and development.

Chemicals found in plastic have been linked to a range of other health problems including cancer, heart disease and poor foetal development. High levels of ingested microplastics may also cause cell damage which could lead to inflammation and allergic reactions, according to analysis by researchers at the University of Hull, in the UK.

The researchers reviewed 17 previous studies which looked at the toxicological impact of microplastics on human cells. The analysis compared the amount of microplastics that caused damage to cells in laboratory tests with the levels ingested by people through drinking water, seafood and salt. It found that the amounts being ingested approached those that could trigger cell death, but could also cause immune responses, including allergic reactions, damage to cell walls, and oxidative stress.

“Our research shows that we are ingesting microplastics at the levels consistent with harmful effects on cells, which are in many cases the initiating event for health effects,” says Evangelos Danopoulos, lead author of the study and a researcher at Hull York Medical School. “We know that microplastics can cross the barriers of cells and also break them, We know they can also cause oxidative stress on cells, which is the start of tissue damage.”

There are two theories as to how microplastics lead to cell breakdown, says Danopoulos. Their sharp edges could rupture the cell wall or the chemicals in the microplastics could damage the cell, he says. The study found that irregularly-shaped microplastics were the most likely to cause cell death.

“What we now need to understand is how many microplastics remain in our body and what kind of size and shape is able to cross the cell barrier,” says Danopoulos. If plastics were to accumulate to the levels at which they could become harmful over a period of time, this could pose an even greater risk to human health.

But even without these answers, Danopoulos questions whether more care is needed to ensure microplastics do not enter the food chain. “If we know that sludge is contaminated with microplastics and that plants have the ability to extract them from the soil, should we be using it as fertiliser?” he says.

Banning sewage sludge

Spreading sludge on farmland has been banned in the Netherlands since 1995. The country initially incinerated the sludge, but started exporting it to the UK, where it was used as fertiliser on farmland, after problems at an Amsterdam incineration plant.

Switzerland prohibited the use of sewage sludge as fertiliser in 2003 because it “comprises a whole range of harmful substances and pathogenic organisms produced by industry and private households”. The US state Maine also banned the practice in April 2022 after environmental authorities found high levels of PFAS on farmland soil, crops and water. High PFAS levels were also detected in farmers’ blood. The widespread contamination forced several farms to close.

The new Maine law bans the application, sale and distribution of compost containing sewage sludge, but does not forbid it from being exported.

But a total ban on using sewage sludge as fertiliser is not necessarily the best solution, says Cardiff University’s Wilson. Instead, it could incentivise farmers to use more synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, made from natural gas, she says.

“[With sewage sludge], we’re using a waste product in an efficient way, rather than producing endless fossil fuel fertilisers,” says Wilson. The organic waste in sludge also helps return carbon to the soil and enriches it with nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which prevents soil degradation, she says.

Microplastics are now on the cusp of changing from a contaminant to a pollutant – Evangelos Danopoulos
“We need to quantify the microplastics in sewage sludge so that we can [determine] where the hot spots are and start managing it,” says Wilson. In places with high levels of microplastics, sewage sludge could be incinerated to generate energy instead of used as fertiliser, she suggests. One way to prevent the contamination of farmland is to recover fats, oil and grease (which contain high levels of microplastics) at wastewater treatment plants and use this “surface scum” as biofuel, instead of mixing it with sludge, Wilson and her colleagues say.

Some European countries, such as Italy and Greece, dispose of sewage sludge in landfill sites, the researchers note, but they warn that there is a risk of microplastics leaching into the environment from these sites and contaminating surrounding land and water bodies.

Both Wilson and Danopoulos say much more research is needed to quantify the amount of microplastics on farmland and the possible environmental and health impacts.

“Microplastics are now on the cusp of changing from a contaminant to a pollutant,” says Danopoulos. “A contaminant is something that is found where it shouldn’t be. Microplastics shouldn’t be in our water and soil. If we prove that [they have] adverse effects, that would make them a pollutant and [we] would have to bring in legislation and regulations.”

Source : BBC


New European-style Curry of Restaurants in Japan

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Organic Trends: Health, Sustainability, Protein Ingredients Driving Innovation

Gaynor Selby wrote . . . . . . . . .

Since the pandemic, health and well-being have come into sharpened focus, which, in turn, continues to drive the application of organic ingredients across a range of F&B products. Organics are gaining ground from conscious consumption in ready-to-drink beverages to lighter alcohol trends and the timely high demand for organic whey and lactose in the infant formula space.

According to Innova Market Insights, the use of organic ingredients in food and beverage launches is increasing globally, featuring a +5% year-over-year growth when comparing 2020 and 2021 launches.

In 2021, the top category of global product launches tracked with organic ingredients was Baby & Toddlers (19%). In 2021, Botanical Ingredients was the leading ingredient category among the global product launches tracked with organic ingredients.

The top positionings of global product launches tracked with organic ingredients in 2021 are Organic (86%), Gluten-Free (31%), and Vegan (29%).

A range of suppliers and food and beverage innovators speak to FoodIngredientsFirst about the consumer trends and market dynamics in the organics arena and how organic ingredients are expected to grow in the years ahead.

Colorful, powerful organics

Botanical Ingredients was the leading the ingredient category in global product launches tracked with organic ingredients.

Maartje Hendrickx, market development manager, GNT Group, explains what is driving the organic ingredients at the company and how it is leveraging current trends.

“Health and sustainability credentials are more important than ever for consumers and these two trends are driving demand for organic food and drink. Organic farming standards generally feature practices that maintain ecological balance and restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers,” she says.

GNT’s EU and USDA organic-certified Exberry Coloring Foods can help organic brands create colorful food and drink while maintaining clean and clear labels. They’re made from edible fruits, vegetables, and plants using only water and physical processing methods.

“This means they’re considered to be food ingredients rather than food additives in many parts of the world, including the EU and the UK. We also have a strong commitment to the environment and recently unveiled our ambitious plans to make GNT the leader in our field on sustainability,” Hendrickx continues.

The company recently launched two new yellow and green Exberry Organics liquids, adding to its red, purple, pink, blue and orange options. Exberry Organics “Fruit & Veg Yellow” is made from organic safflower and organic apple and Exberry Organics “Veg Green” is created from organic safflower and organic spirulina.

“They’re both compliant with Organic Regulation (EU) 2018/848. The new shades are highly versatile and can be used in almost any application, including beverages, confectionery, dairy, snacks, baked goods, and plant-based products,” Hendrickx notes.

Organic claims in infant formula market

Katrine Helene Kristensen, industry marketing manager, dairy & bakery, Arla Foods Ingredients.

Katrine Helene Kristensen, industry marketing manager, Dairy & Bakery, for Arla Foods Ingredients, cites consumer interest in naturalness and health as the key drivers of organics.

“Another sector where organic products are clearly driving growth is in the global infant formula market, where more than 15% of launches in the last three years have featured organic claims,” Kristensen points out.

Organic whey and lactose are in high demand in the infant formula market.

“The sector is expected to grow by 10% over the next five years, but with demand for organic whey and lactose rapidly outpacing supply, insufficient availability of infant grade organic raw materials has – to date – threatened to hold back growth,” she explains.

“That is one of the reasons we introduced our patented milk fractionation technology ‘Origin by Arla Foods Ingredients’, to enable manufacturers in the early life nutrition sectors to easily bypass organic whey shortages,” she adds.

The US continues to face a baby formula shortage, with parents scrambling to find supplies. Over the past few months, the problem has been brewing due to compounding issues, including the supply chain crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The situation escalated further after Abbott Nutrition voluntarily recalled a number of its products after an FDA investigation was launched in connection with four children being hospitalized, whereas two died.

Arla Foods Ingredients (AFI) is currently using its new technology to manufacture the organic Baby&Me brand for Arla Foods. AFI expects to launch its first organic private label infant formula solutions based on the technology during 2022.

In addition to organic whey and lactose, there continues to be a growing demand for organic functional protein products in the health-conscious consumer segment, highlights Kristensen.

“To tap into this, we launched our first organic product range, Nutrilac MicelPure Organic, which is suitable for health and performance applications, such as ready-to-drink high-protein beverages and powder shakes. It also works well in food applications such as cheeses, yogurts, and ice cream,” she says.

Conscious consumption

Mixing organics at home is outliving its popularity established during early quarantine periods with the forced closure of clubs and bars, explains Cornelia Kerschbaumer, director of marketing and communication at Austria Juice.

“Originally, this development began during the lockdowns through delivery services of the gastronomy – but in the meantime, it has already reached the supermarkets,” she says.

“Austria Juice has reacted promptly to this trend and developed popular basic products for mixed drinks in organic quality, like Organic Cola, Organic Tonic, Organic Berry, Organic Bitter Orange, Organic Bitter Lemon and Organic Ginger Ale.”

The organic range also expands in alcoholic beverages with a greater mix of organic ingredients, unconventional flavors and a comprehensive overall benefit for well-being and health, notes Kerschbaumer.“Austria Juice has responded to this trend with cider based on 100% organic, suitable ingredients, a higher juice content and new innovative flavor combinations. With alcohol levels of around 5% volume, this light alcoholic beverage category in different flavors also appeals to consumers’ need to drink light and fruity refreshments.”

Growth opportunities in organics

Arla Foods Ingredients launched its first organic ingredient, Nutrilac MicelPure, in August 2020 and Kristensen explains how the launch of the organic micellar casein isolate marked the start of the company’s long-term strategy of filling the gap in the market for natural, organic protein ingredients.

“The company will continue its focus on the organic sector in 2022, and it will reveal details about several projects throughout the year,” she concludes.

Meanwhile, at GNT, Hendrickx believes the company’s newly expanded Exberry Organics range “opens up more opportunities than ever before” for organic brands to create vibrant food and drink with completely clean and clear labels.

“While health and sustainability are the key drivers for most organic purchases, it’s essential to ensure that these products look appealing as well. Consumers can see organic products as boring and have a negative perception of their taste. Vibrant shades can transform those perceptions and ensure organic food and drink looks truly appetizing on the shelf,” she says.

Source: Food Ingredients 1st

Charts: Trends of U.K. Protein Transition

How Chains Are Challenging Traditional Chinese Cooking

Zhong Shuru wrote . . . . . . . . .

Chinese cuisine defies easy characterization. It encompasses a wide range of regional sub-cuisines, each defined by local tastes, techniques, and ingredients. Even staple dishes like fried tomatoes and eggs or twice-cooked pork can look and taste radically different depending on the chef’s background. More complex dishes rarely have a standard recipe and require a highly refined skillset and years of practice to master.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Chinese have been slow to embrace the consistency of chain restaurants. According to a 2021 industry report, chains accounted for just 15% of all food service businesses in China in 2020, compared to 61% in the United States and 53% in Japan.

That gap is closing quickly, however. In recent years, Chinese malls have been flooded by an eclectic range of mid- to high-end franchise dining options, led by brands like Haidilao, Home Original Chicken, and Xibei Youmiancun. The largest of these, hot pot giant Haidilao, has 935 outlets and has begun expanding overseas, though it still accounts for just 5% of China’s hot pot market.

Chains are not a new concept in China. For years, low-cost fast-food brands like Shaxian Delicacies, Lanzhou Beef Noodles, and Braised Chicken With Rice have battled for market share. But their management model, wherein stores are operated by independent franchisees with little oversight, results in a far lower degree of standardization and consistency than Western fast-food chains like McDonalds.

What sets the new generation of Chinese chain restaurants apart from earlier Chinese chains is their use of “central kitchens.” These facilities are essentially factories where ingredients purchased by the chain’s headquarters are prepared, either partially or completely, according to a standardized procedure before being sent to restaurants.

Take the Chinese Sauerkraut Fish chain, for example. Most ingredients used in the chain’s South China region stores are processed at three central kitchens. These kitchens gut and cut the fish, package it with seasonings, and chop up vegetables. Once these pre-processed ingredients arrive at the chain’s outlets, all chefs have to do is boil the soup, blanch the fish meat, and drizzle oil on top — basic tasks that can be completed within 15 minutes of a customer placing their order.

Central kitchens may run counter to Chinese culinary tradition, which emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients, but they free chains from the hassle of local supply chains. According to a department head at Jiumaojiu Group, which operates restaurants specializing in Northwest Chinese cuisine, the company purchases ingredients in bulk quantities from suppliers throughout the country. The company directly oversees the production of some key ingredients, such as pork, to ensure quality and consistency. Chain restaurants are products of industrialized agriculture — and their success is another sign that the traditional relationship between food and the land is breaking down.

The central kitchen model also has little use for chefs. A good chef used to be the guarantor of a decent meal, with many patrons basing their decision to visit a certain restaurant purely on its chef’s reputation. By contrast, central kitchens operate on an assembly line model: All manner of specialized industrial machines, such as vegetable dicers and bone saws, are involved in the processing of ingredients. The culinary experience no longer lies in the hands of chefs, meaning they aren’t required to be masters of their craft; their prior experience is irrelevant; and they’re easy to replace.

As for menus, central kitchen-based chains often adopt a “less is more” approach. As anyone who has handled a Chinese menu can attest, traditional Chinese restaurants typically offer a wide range of dishes, and better establishments continually update their menus to create new options for regular patrons.

That is not the case at many newer chain restaurants. The shorter their menus are, the simpler quality control becomes. The goal is efficiency, achieved by minimizing the time it takes to produce each dish. Chinese Sauerkraut Fish takes this minimalist approach to the extreme, offering diners just one flavor, one type of fish, and one level of spice.

The financial advantages of this model are obvious. Central kitchens allow Chinese chain restaurants to save on raw materials, labor, and rent. (Because the vast majority of ingredients have already been prepared elsewhere, outlets don’t need large kitchen spaces.) Carefully designed assembly lines and standardized outputs make expansion a matter of copy-and-pasting.

For some chains, central kitchens have even become a key business in their own right. Haidilao subsidiary Shuhai Supply Chain Solutions uses the chain’s central kitchen model to supply ingredients to over 2,000 outlets of more than 300 restaurant brands. As of the end of 2019, Shuhai’s overall sales had surpassed 6 billion yuan ($942 million) — more than that of many of Haidilao’s leading competitors.

The pandemic has reinforced chains’ competitive edge. Rising labor costs and rents, combined with overworked urban consumers’ growing desire for solitary and fast dining experiences, have put chain restaurants with central kitchens at a significant advantage. At the same time, more and more households have begun to purchase pre-prepared meals — that is, ingredients that have already been thoroughly processed and which the buyer can simply throw into a pan and heat up after coming home from a hard day of work. Even our dinner tables are being integrated into the chain system.

But does the rise of chain restaurants really signal the end of traditional Chinese cuisine? Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I’m not so sure. Chain restaurants still represent a niche market, heavily concentrated in large cities and catered to young people who value efficiency. Competition in these oversaturated markets is cutthroat: Many Chinese chains invest tremendous resources in social media marketing, hoping to become the next must-visit destination for young influencers. This tempers the chains’ appeal to other consumers, including families and high-end luxury diners.

It’s also worth noting that central kitchen-reliant chains are concentrated in a handful of cuisines, such as hot pot. The heady spice of the mala flavor profile is not particularly demanding in terms of ingredients or culinary techniques, and it helps mask some of the deficiencies of the central kitchen model. Demand for spicy food has grown in recent years, but there are still plenty of diners who have little tolerance for peppers, and who prefer independent restaurants with a more diverse flavor profile.

China is not immune from the “McDonaldization” of society. Chains promise investors a high degree of control and efficiency while producing steady, predictable results. They’ll probably continue to grow in the coming years. But it’s unlikely they’ll overturn traditional Chinese culinary culture. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that many of today’s independent restaurant operators will outlast the current crop of chains. After all, when a business relies on machine-like processes to expand, all it takes is a competitor with a slightly better machine to leave them in the dust.

Source: Sixth Tone