Can processed food be healthy? Israeli students think so

Does ready-made food have to be harmful to health? Technion students say no.

 OmeleTofu instant vegan omelet.  (photo credit: Rami Shelush, Technion spokesperson’s office)
OmeleTofu instant vegan omelet.
(photo credit: Rami Shelush, Technion spokesperson’s office)

The Health Ministry and clinical dietitians have for years been saying that heavily processed foods are unhealthy and should be avoided as much as possible. But do ready-to-eat foods and energy bars have to be harmful to health?

Processed foods fill certain needs in our lives: When we don’t have time to cook; when hungry children want to eat while their parents are at work; when we want a pick-me-up or crave some comfort food. Can we have all that without hurting our bodies?

In an international event held in Brussels and funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, students from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and from Turin, Helsinki and Madrid worked to design and develop new, shelf-stable processed-food products that support health.

The groups were part of a “Food Solutions” project that looked at processed foods as a fact of life and are now offering healthful, environmentally friendly, convenient foods. No longer will there have to be a choice between convenience and health when products can be both. The two Technion teams won gold and silver medals for their innovative ideas.

“We think of ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ as the healthy and ‘green’ choices. But that’s not quite true.”

Prof. Maya Davidovich-Pinhas

“We think of ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ as the healthy and ‘green’ choices,” explained Prof. Maya Davidovich-Pinhas, one of the Technion teams’ guides.

A vegan, gluten-free, low-sugar, savory protein snack made from chickpeas and lentils with a cashew-based filling. (credit: Rami Shelush, Technion spokesperson’s office)A vegan, gluten-free, low-sugar, savory protein snack made from chickpeas and lentils with a cashew-based filling. (credit: Rami Shelush, Technion spokesperson’s office)

“But that’s not quite true,” Davidovich-Pinhas added. “Modern processing methods, based on scientific knowledge, can preserve, and even enhance the food’s digestibility and nutritional values. When you think about it, food processing has been a part of human history for millennia. It’s what enabled people to preserve food for winter, make it safe for prolonged periods and carry it on long journeys. Even cooking is a form of processing food, which makes nutrients easier to digest, renders the food safer and removes toxins and pathogens. Health-consciousness, a scientific approach and new technology enable us to do the same things in smarter ways, and to get novel, healthy food solutions.”

The teams said fresh products require cold storage and cold transportation, which have high energy costs that shelf-stable products do not incur. Fresh products also spoil quickly and often go to waste.

“One has to look no further than the local greengrocer’s, at the fruit or vegetables that are imported from across the globe but will be thrown away at the end of the day if they’re not sold. We wanted to create a product that harnesses the benefits of modern processing methods and changes processed food’s bad public relations,” they said.

The winner and the runner-up

THE “OMELETOFU” team, which won the gold medal at the event, developed an instant vegan omelet (just add water). This tofu-based product is offered in mushroom and shakshuka flavors. The product is produced by freeze-drying, which was first developed for medical applications and space travel and which, unlike heat-based drying methods, better preserves the food’s nutritional values.

The team included graduate students from two faculties: Yael Friedler, from the Faculty of Data & Decision Sciences; and Neta Shimony, Eden Freundlich, Noa Ben David-Zinn, Rauf Nasyer and Caroline Hali, from the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering.

The idea for the omelet came from Neta’s vegan boyfriend who was struggling to find healthy food options that wouldn’t demand much time to prepare and would suit his dietary needs. The prototype development was supported by Garuda Labs, which helped the team with culinary aspects and implementation of the technology.

The second Technion team, which won the silver medal, was composed of undergraduate students Ari Yolles, Michal Halfon and Shaked Katzelnik, from the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering; and chef Adam Kleinberg, from Bishulim culinary school.

Calling themselves “Proteinchick,” they developed a vegan, gluten-free, low-sugar, savory protein snack made from chickpeas and lentils with a cashew-based filling. Its manufacturing process uses the water in which the chickpeas are cooked to bring the ingredients together in a process of co-extrusion that gives it a fluffy and crunchy texture.

Expert guidance

Both groups were guided by Davidovich-Pinhas, Avi Shpigelman and Uri Lesmes, from the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering.

“This competition offers students a unique learning experience,” Lesmes said. “They get a taste of the challenges the food sector faces today. They develop a product, lay down a business plan, scheme its manufacturing and present their ‘company’ to a team of experienced judges. So the whole process is very similar to founding a real start-up.”

The victories of “OmeleTofu” and “Proteinchick” join a line of trophies Technion students won in Food Solutions competitions since the initiative’s launch in 2017. Winning projects from previous years include vegan oat-based labaneh, soy-based yogurt, low-sugar chocolate cake, spirulina-enriched falafel and a solution to help prevent spoilage of natural juices.

The projects’ successes, year after year, are owed to experienced faculty, excellent students and first-rate infrastructure. The students gain experience developing food products and in practical work on semi-industrial machinery in the faculty’s Food Innovation Center, as well as extensive studies of science and engineering.

This year, the Technion decided to upgrade the existing infrastructure by founding the Carasso FoodTech Innovation Center and R&D center that will be the first of its kind in Israel, and one of the most advanced in the world, connecting the students to the flourishing food-tech ecosystem.