‘The food technology of tomorrow will be healthier than it is today’
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Developing ‘food 4.0’ is part and parcel of her everyday life. Dorothée Goffin is the Director of the Smart Gastronomy Lab. A ULiège laboratory which endeavours to establish connections between the culinary, alimentary and technological worlds.
‘When I was a child, I let it slip to my parents that later on, when I was grown up, I wanted to be Danone to invent new yoghurt tastes. I very early on developed a strong attraction to alimentary innovation and healthy products,’ explains Dorothée Goffin, getting straight to the heart of the matter. Having graduated in chemical and bio-industries engineering at the University of Liege, and then obtaining a Doctorate in agronomic sciences and biological engineering from the same university, in 2015 she cofounded the Smart Gastronomy Lab (SGL). Established at the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech site, this gastronomic sciences research laboratory aims primarily to discover what is of value in the new technologies with a view to anticipating the food of the future. This will be more people-centred, and the products will be less processed, more natural and healthier than that provided by the current agro-industry.
‘Agro-food and nutrition are the last major thematics which still haven’t incorporated digital technologies. Yet it is important to explore them for creative solutions to obtain better monitoring of food processing procedures or the behaviours of consumers. From our perspective, food technology is not about developing a hyperconnected kitchen with robots putting together meals in our place, but involves making the best use of technologies to improve the processes leading to simpler and healthier products.’
Lacto-fermentation monitored by sensors
Up until recently, industrialising food consisted of producing on a very large scale: everything was allowed, including an excessive co-opting of chemistry, in order to improve yields and quality, whilst effectively overseeing the processes so as not to poison consumers. The idea espoused at the SGL is to take a step backwards, to process the raw materials less, to only work with natural products, to focus on short supply chains, whilst producing quality foodstuffs on a medium or even large scale in order to feed a maximum number of people.
One example is lacto-fermentation, a simple food processing and preservation process which has existed since the dawn of time. ‘When we implement lacto-fermentation on the scale of an everyday kitchen, we are capable of mastering the process by means of a series of markers: the acidity, making sure it doesn’t smell bad, the colour. But if you are a local producer who wants to lacto-ferment a part of your production in order to sell it throughout the whole year, it is necessary to have simple tools in order to monitor these parameters very precisely. And you need to do so to ensure food safety at the level of the smallholding, and not cause health issues amongst consumers. We develop such tools by integrating new technologies.’
Defining the consumption profile
With her team, Dorothée Goffin is also working on a connected meal sub-tray. It records the movements as well as the forces and pressures exerted on the plate placed on its surface. The first application is to monitor the behaviour of the residents of a care home during their meals.
‘The prototype allows a certain number of parameters to be monitored, and throws light on the way people are eating. If that changes over time, in quantities swallowed or in the duration of the meal or other aspects, this may indicate ongoing or imminent health issues if undernourishment is a factor. The tray is a tool to aid decision-making intended for the caregivers.’ A full-scale test was recently carried out at a Gembloux care home: 6 trays were tested involving 6 residents for 6 weeks. The data is currently being processed. ‘Nonetheless, we have for a start been able to observe all of the difficulties involved in integrating this type of technological tool in real conditions. The prototype will be modified, as well as the methods of detecting and processing the data. We hope to commercialise it within 2 or 3 years, depending on research projects and subsidies.’
Various applications can be imagined beyond care homes. Thus, at the last KIKK festival, at a gastronomic restaurant situated at a junction on the site, 60 plates were supported by a connected tray: ‘These 60 covers were processed concurrently. At the end of the meal, all the diners could find out their consumption profile.’ Because indeed, when a foodstuff we have never eaten takes centre stage on the plate, our behaviour changes. Certain people wince, make a gesture of rejection, evincing what is called food neophobia; whilst others, neophiles, delight in tasting something unknown to their palette.
As sparkling forty-something, Dorothée Goffin is the mother of three children. After experimenting all day with dietary manners, is she creative in the kitchen once she has returned home? ‘There are a lot of restrictions at home and, unfortunately, not a lot of time. I try to be creative at the stove, but primarily I opt for local products and I make simple meals from them. You don’t always have to be complicated in the kitchen, the important thing is cook well and to pay a lot of attention to the quality of the products you eat.’
Dorothée Goffin has been active within the start-up milieu since her doctoral thesis. Armed with the results of her doctoral research on prebiotic fibres, she created a spin-off project, IMONIC. ‘Then, the legislation concerning prebiotic fibres changed. At the same time I was appointed to a position at the university and the spin-off did not continue. On the other hand, since the creation of the Smart Gastronomy Lab with Eric Haubruge, we have created several start-ups, notably the Miam Factory which does 3D printing in chocolate and laser engraving on macaroons. We are also involved in the Living Forest start-up, which will soon be bringing out kombuchas produced from varieties of the Walloon forest, under the So Wood label.’
This entrepreneurial spirit, this wish to always be moving forward, Dorothée Goffin certainly owes to her love of sport. ‘I am very involved in sports. I go running, climbing, cycling. I entered a lot of competitions when I was younger, at the time, today, sport is just for pleasure. It can be helpful in terms of surpassing yourself, your lifestyle. I recharge my batteries by walking in the forest, in the mountains. And when I run, that is when I am at my most creative. That obliges me to run every day!’
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