The child, a 4-year-old autistic, kept nibbling on the dog food. Even when his parents started feeding the dog at night, the child constantly found his way to the pet’s bowl to grab the crunchy pellets.
A dietitian figured out the problem: The girl, a “selective eater” like many autistic children, had aversions to soft, creamy foods like peanut butter, eggs and cheese. This meant that she was not getting enough protein.
But it took the Drexel University Food Lab to come up with a solution: a crunchy, protein-rich, iron-rich, goldfish-like cracker made with “upcycled” foods – in this case, pomace. of nutritionally dense sunflower seeds left in the press after the oil is squeezed out.
The child eats them by handfuls.
This is just one of the projects developed by the Food Lab, launched in 2014 by Professor Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, who teaches in the Department of Food and Hospitality Management at the College of Nursing and Health. health.
Culinary schools train talented chefs. Food science programs are mint graduates who can analyze an ingredient’s nutrient profile or design new manufacturing methods. The Food Lab does both, blending practical culinary arts with rigorous scientific research with the goal of healing a broken food system, one innovative product at a time.
The lab’s ambitious mission: to improve the health of people, the planet and the economy, and to produce graduate students in all academic disciplines who understand how these three elements are linked.
This mission is evident during a visit to the lab, on the sixth floor of a university building in West Philadelphia. There’s a bustling commercial-style kitchen with multiple stoves, sinks, and a giant hanging pegboard with strainers and pans. In a conference room, a whiteboard is scribbled with project notes, including molecular breakdowns of ingredients in periodic table shorthand.
Rachel Sherman, dressed as a chef/scientist in a white double-breasted jacket, has led the Food Lab since 2019. A former pastry chef and currently a graduate student in public health, she offers samples of a few of the Food Lab’s 100 products. has created by partnering with entities ranging from small start-up entrepreneurs to municipal health departments and multinational food companies.
There are tasting cups of Reveal Avocado Seed Brew in a tangy mango and ginger flavor, the brainchild of two Drexel graduate students who discovered that avocado pits, typically tossed in compost bins, contain most of the fruit’s antioxidants. In collaboration with the Food Lab, they developed a drink based on these extracts, obtained FDA certification and marketed the drink.
Tiny spoons cradle bites of Mother Butter chocolate, designed by a Philadelphia mom who partnered with the Food Lab to create a vegan, nut-free, multi-grain spread rich in omega-3 fatty acids and packaged in recyclable and returnable glass jars.
It is easy to name the problems that Deutsch, Sherman and their students are trying to solve. More than 2 billion people worldwide lack essential micronutrients. Thirty percent of the world’s population is overweight or obese. A third of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce, process and package food. Along the global production pathway, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“We are facing a global pandemic far more deadly than COVID-19. But it’s happening in slow motion,” says Scott Bowman, co-chair of the Nourish Movement, a global collaboration of leaders in healthcare, food production and technology. “Food system challenges center on this link between human health and planetary health.”
The pandemic has accelerated these issues and made them more visible. Long-standing health disparities linked to poverty and access to healthy food have become painfully evident; disruptions in supply chains have led to both shortages and excesses.
That’s why the Food Lab is particularly interested in reducing waste in the food production system: sunflower seed pomace turned into protein-rich crackers; a jam made from bacon bits that ended up on the factory floor; a highly nutritious broth made from the “carrot dust” left over after whole carrots have been ground into bite-size pieces.
Deutsch helped found the Upcycled Food Foundation, which promotes and certifies products that use recycled ingredients – materials that otherwise would not have been made for human consumption and that have a positive impact on the environment.
Some Food Lab projects aim to improve health at the population level. Concerns about higher rates of hypertension, heart disease and stroke in black and low-income adults led the lab to partner with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on a project, supported by the CDC, aiming to reduce “stealth” sources of sodium on a large scale.
The lab worked with Amoroso’s Baking Company to develop a low-sodium whole-wheat hoagie bread and rolled it out — pun intended — to school cafeterias across the city in 2019. It subtracted 1,300 pounds of salt per year of the Philadelphia Public School Diet. children.
Still other projects fall into the “food as medicine” bucket. There’s a candy-like natural laxative made from prunes, dates and coconut that doesn’t eliminate beneficial bacteria from the gut, and an ice cream that has the nutritional profile of Ensure but doesn’t make seniors feel pampered by having to sip through a straw. Food Lab staff and students teamed up with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on anti-nausea frozen drinks made with natural ingredients.
The Food Lab’s mission – to help people, the planet and the economy – resonates across the country, from colleges to businesses. The Culinary Institute of America and Stanford University co-lead the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), with 74 higher education institutions using their dining halls as labs for healthy, sustainably produced and “shamelessly delicious”.
The National Produce Prescription Collaborative, established in 2021, is working to integrate “production prescriptions” – that is, doctors’ certificates for patients on government-sponsored health plans to obtain healthy foods the same way they would get prescription drugs – in clinical practice.
Deutsch, who worked in what he calls the “big bad food industry” before coming to Drexel, relaxes one afternoon in the Food Lab’s conference room, the table strewn with tasting spoons, half a grapefruit and a jar of TBJ bacon jam.
They are currently out of those crackers that kept the 4 year old from eating dog food. But they could become more widely available to children with autism-linked food aversions. The Food Lab is working with Drexel’s Autism Institute, the university’s Office of Applied Innovation, and a company that wants to bring the crackers to market.
“At the end of the day,” Deutsch says, “we’re trying to improve the food system incrementally.”