Cargill R&D chief: 'When I started, food science was cool, now it’s viewed with suspicion'

Dr Kerr Dow: 'Open innovation is not just a buzzword, it’s a change in mindset in the whole industry.' (Picture: Cargill)

Ironically, perhaps, just as open innovation is fostering a more open and collaborative culture in the notoriously secretive world of food R&D, consumers are becoming increasingly suspicious of scientists ‘meddling’ with their food, says Cargill’s vice president of global R&D Kerr Dow.

“One of the things that’s changed in the course of my career is that when I started off, it was cool to apply science to food," says Dow, who began his career as a research microbiologist after earning a PhD in marine/environmental microbiology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and progressed up the ranks at Heinz before joining Cargill in 2007.

"But in the last decade or so, there has been this suspicion around science and it’s a shame, especially when it is being applied to make food more nutritious or more sustainable.”

Biotechnology can help plants such as canola produce long-chain omega-3 fatty acids currently only found in fish and algae; while bioengineered yeast, algae or other microbes can produce flavors, proteins, sweeteners and other ingredients in big fermentation tanks in a way that is more sustainable than production methods that involve petrochemicals or are very resource intensive, he says.

We're making exactly the same molecules, just by a different route

But while fermentation - adding yeasts or cultures to convert, say, sugar to alcohol, or milk to yogurt - is hardly new, the next generation of products, some of which use genetically engineered microbes, present PR challenges at a time when consumers want food 'made in a kitchen, not a lab,' concedes Dow.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in enzyme experts, molecular biologists, fermentation experts because we think it that if these technologies can be applied to creating food in a more sustainable way, that’s a good thing.

“But whether they are a success or not will come down to how they are positioned with the consumer, so as an industry we have to spend time talking to consumers and to consumer [advocacy] groups, to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it this way, as I understand why it could sound scary, but all we’re doing is making exactly the same molecules, just by a different route.”

Open innovation: It’s not just a buzzword, it’s a change in mindset in the whole industry

As for open innovation – whereby food companies recognize that their own R&D departments don’t have a monopoly on great ideas – the industry mindset has changed significantly in recent years, says Dow, who cites Cargill’s collaborations with Evolva on fermentation-based sweeteners, and with BASF on canola plants engineered to produce long-chain omega-3s, as two examples of open innovation at work.

“Open innovation is not just a buzzword, it’s a change in mindset in the whole industry, which has traditionally been very closed and secretive. 

Fermentation projects at Cargill span everything from sweeteners (EverSweet and Sucromalt) to hydrocolloids (xanthan gum), biopolymers, acidulants such as lactic acid, and biofuels such as ethanol.

“I think there has been a definite shift in the whole food industry to be not just more open to external innovation but to go out and actively seek it.”

We’re managing unsolicited approaches more professionally today

Cargill has a dedicated external innovation team through which it proactively seeks out external partners, he says. But it is also able to evaluate incoming approaches from third parties in a more systematic manner.

“We get unsolicited approaches all the time and we’ve got a lot better at managing those professionally, although I’d still say that they are probably the least likely way you’re going to find something that works for you. You’ll get 100 approaches and maybe one of them will turn out to be interesting.

“We’ve also worked hard to get the process [for collaboration] right, as when you’ve got a bunch of lawyers in the room it can really stifle innovation; you need to find a way to really have a conversation before everyone starts signing confidentiality agreements.”

Open innovation has also helped to break down internal barriers and ensure Cargill doesn’t look outside for technologies without first establishing that it doesn’t have access to them in-house, in a different part of the business, he says [eg. technology developed in the animal nutrition business could inform human nutrition projects].

“R&D at Cargill [a global business generating revenues of $120bn+ in 2015] used to be very much a localized activity that was performed by every business group without too much central coordination, whereas today we have a global R&D function,” says Kerr Dow, who heads up Cargill’s global R&D operation at its HQ in Minneapolis.

“We still have product line R&D specialists that sit within their respective business units such as cocoa and chocolate, but we also have shared capabilities in all the areas of R&D that can be used by any business, and I lead that shared capability organization.”

Sweeteners: Monatin tasted fabulous but it wasn’t commercially viable

So what’s happening with some key R&D projects right now?

On the natural sweeteners front, he says, the focus remains on steviol glycosides. “There’s a whole bunch of other potential high intensity natural sweeteners out there and we’ve been looking at these for many years, but we chose stevia because we think it’s the best of the bunch.

We invested a lot in monatin [a sweetener isolated from the plant Sclerochiton ilicifolius] but it didn’t work out. It tasted fabulous but it wasn’t commercially viable.    

“There’s no magic bullet; sometimes natural sweeteners don’t perform well in acidic foods, they degrade or change flavor, or they don’t tolerate heat well, which means if you put them in foods that need cooking, or are pasteurized, they’ll be trashed. And sometimes, they are just too expensive.  

“But we still believe in stevia; the only issue is that it is a family of molecules and some of them don’t taste good, so we are continually investing in research to try and figure out the most optimal blend of those molecules, which is what we are doing with our ViaTech family of products.”

EverSweet: Do we go ahead with something sub-optimal or do we wait until we get it right?

As for EverSweet - a new brand of steviol glycosides (Reb D+M) derived from a fermentation process involving a genetically engineered baker’s yeast – Cargill is still working with partner Evolva to optimize the process before a commercial launch, he says.

“We delayed the launch because didn’t have the performance efficiencies that we had hoped to get, so it was a case of do we go ahead with something sub-optimal or do we wait [until we get it right]?

“The modified brewer’s yeast that we’re using can make the steviol glycoside we want, that’s not a problem, we just want to make sure our costs are competitive.  Costs across multiple parts of the supply chain are currently above where we want them to be for launch and we are working to optimize them.

“It happens a lot in R&D, you have certain milestones and timelines and sometimes things don’t work out the way you think, but it’s new to the world application [of fermentation technology] so, these things happen.”

Long-chain omega-3s from canola oil set for 2020 launch

On the oils and fats front, the collaboration with BASF to develop canola plants bioengineered (using genes from algae) to produce meaningful levels of the long chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA - which is currently only available in fish, fungi and algae - is on schedule, with a commercial launch likely around 2020 or just beyond, he says.

“The reason projects like this might seem to take such a long time is because it is not just about gaining regulatory approvals, it’s doing all the field trials and ensuring that farmers will want to buy the seeds and grow the plant.”

New PHO-free shortenings set to launch at IBIE this fall

Other work on the fats and oils front is focused on a new line of partially-hydrogenated-oil-free shortenings.

“We’ve been working on eliminating PHOs for years and the focus now is doing this without using saturated fats; the new shortenings rely mainly on liquid oils blended with some saturated fats to make them behave like solid fat, but I can’t say any more at this stage about how we’re doing that.”

Sodium reduction 

On the sodium reduction front, nothing “earth shattering” has hit the market in recent years, argues Kerr, who says Cargill is focused on further developing its potassium chloride-based salt replacers in order to tackle KCL's metallic off-tastes, and developing technologies that play around with the structure of salt [sodium chloride] crystals such that smaller amounts can go further.

For example, flakes of salt or hollow balls of salt can deliver a more intense, salty taste with less sodium because Cargill is increasing the surface area to volume ratio, which can be highly effective for topical applications where salt is primarily serving as a flavor, rather than say, a preservative, he says.

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