Sky high nutrition content in food production

by Celine C.S. Nicole, Signify Research

Plant Factories (also known as indoor farms or vertical farms) are gaining widespread attention over the last few years. Pioneered in Japan, the last few years show an acceleration in the adoption of plant factories in other regions such as the USA, Canada, Europe and South-East Asia.

Leafy greens are crops that are very suitable to be grown in plant factories. Among them are lettuce, arugula and fresh herbs. Locally grown, these crops can reach the end-consumer faster and therefore the freshness can be guaranteed longer.

For those crops which are usually sold minimally processed, it is important that the quality and food safety is fulfilled. Apart from reducing risks from bacterial load and other micro-organisms, plant factories offer the possibility to grow these crops without pesticides.

In addition, other quality aspects are requested such as appearance as judged from color and texture. For specific crops, taste is an important parameter and nutritional content as well (vitamins, flavonoids, carotenoids). For all the leafy green, shelf life is expected to be as good as with traditional horticulture practice.

In a plant factory, because all the growth parameters are under control, this means the quality at harvest can be controlled as well. This new control parameter enabled by LED light gives new opportunities in the food production chain.

Interview

What drives you?
It has been my drive for many years to work on research that is directly relevant for the society. I also like Hippocrates quote “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Consumers today want fresh produce year-round, locally grown without pesticides and of high nutritional quality. With LED light recipes used in vertical farming it is becoming possible to increase production yield and at the same time deliver a highly nutritious product.

Why should the delegate attend your presentation?
Learn something about light

What emerging technologies/trends do you see as having the greatest potential in the short and long run?
Understanding plant and light interaction is important to be able to produce food efficiently and of a high quality for a growing population. LEDs are enabling new research on plant growth. The horticulture industry must learn again how to produce food in the context of vertical farming. Light recipe research is crucial for vertical farming because it interacts with all the parameters controlling the plant growth. This control is in the hands of the farm operator who needs a very extensive knowledge and know-how in a field where not so much information is available yet. To have answers on optimum growth recipes Philips lighting Horticulture Led Solutions is building a large recipe database which will enable us to advice on the best recipe for growth and high-quality food production. We also propose trials in our vertical farming research centers for growth recipe research. Additional in-depth understanding on mechanisms involved in improving quality of fresh vegetables produce needs to be researched by Universities and Research institutes. Therefore, we have for many years a strong collaboration with Wageningen University in the team of Prof. Leo Marcelis.

What kind of impact do you expect them to have?
Baby leaves (10 to 15 cm long leaves) from lettuce, arugula and spinach and fresh herbs are more and more popular among consumers. For both categories of leafy greens and herbs, the consumer attaches a high value to the quality of fresh produce as well as food safety factors. The quality is a combination of many characteristics: its appearance (color, texture), taste, shelf life, nutritional value. In particular, healthy nutrients content becomes a quality attribute which is requested more and more by health conscious consumers. The result we observed on the vitamin C and K content of rocket and baby leaf spinach can potentially lead to a new opportunity in the retail chain. With nutrition labelling regulations in Europe, a significant vitamin C content is stated when the product contains 15% or more of the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) supplied by 100 g of fresh product. We have found a way to boost the nutrient content of baby leaf products using specific light recipe with well-defined growth conditions where we would be able to fulfill 100% of some of the RDA.

What are the barriers that might stand in the way?
Our research opens new opportunities in the food chain which was never possible in the horticulture history. Vegetables can be grown not only with a constant quality, but also specific nutrient content can be achieved or boosted. This new food production may enable possible in vivo research on human food nutrition and how gut metabolism is affected by the nutrient composition of specific vegetables having a well-defined nutrient content. And long-term, it will enable more knowledge on impact of food on human health. Plant science research needs now to connect with human food nutrition research to enable innovation.

About Celine C.S. Nicole

Dr. Celine C.S. Nicole is responsible for recipe research at Signify Research (former Philips Lighting). She has expertise in physics, plant sciences, laser, light and sensing technology. The last 12 years, she has accumulated expertise in light application for greenhouse and indoor horticulture. Specializing on nutrition content of food, growth and pre- or post-harvest quality of various horticultural crops under LED lighting. Crop expertise extends from vegetables, to floriculture and medicinal plants (optimizing compounds for medicine). She is laboratory manager of R&D indoor farming facility at GrowWise research center and is also in charge of open innovation (University, Public/Private program) and supervision and co-promotion of University students (PhDs and Msc).

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