The child, a 4-year-old with autism, kept munching the dog food. Even when her parents began feeding the dog at night, the child persistently found her way to the animal’s bowl to grab the crunchy pellets.
A dietitian figured out the problem: The girl, a “selective eater” like many children on the autism spectrum, had aversions to soft, creamy foods such as peanut butter, eggs, and cheese. That meant she wasn’t getting enough protein.
But it took Drexel University’s Food Lab to devise a solution: a crunchy, protein-packed, iron-rich, Goldfish-like cracker made with “upcycled” food – in this case, the nutritionally dense sunflower-seed pomace left in the press after the oil is expelled.
The child eats them by the handful.
That’s 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 in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
Culinary schools groom talented chefs. Food science programs mint graduates who can analyze an ingredient’s nutritional profile or engineer new manufacturing methods. The Food Lab does both, blending hands-on culinary arts with rigorous research science in an effort to heal 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 graduate students across academic disciplines who understand how those three things are connected.
That mission is evident in 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 pegboard slung with sieves and saucepans. In a conference room, a whiteboard is scribbled with project notes, including molecular breakdowns of ingredients in periodic-table shorthand.
Rachel Sherman, dressed every bit the chef/scientist in a double-breasted white jacket, has directed the Food Lab since 2019. A former pastry chef and current graduate student in public health, she offers samples of some of the 100 products the Food Lab has created through partnering with entities ranging from tiny start-up entrepreneurs to city health departments and multinational food companies.
There are tasting cups of Reveal Avocado Seed Brew in a tangy mango-ginger flavor, the brainchild of two Drexel graduate students who discovered that avocado pits, typically tossed into compost bins, contain most of the fruit’s antioxidants. Working with the Food Lab, they developed a beverage made from those extracts, earned certification from the FDA, and marketed the drink.
Tiny spoons cradle bites of chocolate Mother Butter, devised by a Philadelphia mom who teamed with the Food Lab to make a multi-seed spread that’s vegan, nut-free, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and packaged in recyclable, returnable glass jars.
It’s easy to name the problems Deutsch, Sherman, and their students are trying to solve. More than 2 billion people worldwide lack essential micro-nutrients. Thirty percent of the world’s population is overweight or obese. One-third of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from how we produce, process, and package food. Along the global production route, 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
“We’re facing a far, far deadlier global pandemic than COVID-19. But it’s happening in slow motion,” says Scott Bowman, co-chair of the Nourish Movement, a global collaborative of leaders in health care, food production, and technology. “The food system challenges are centered around this nexus of human health and planetary health.”
The pandemic accelerated these problems and made them more visible. Long-standing health disparities related to poverty and healthy-food access became painfully clear; breakdowns in supply chains led to both shortages and excess.
That’s why the Food Lab has a particular interest in reducing waste in the food production system: the sunflower-seed pomace turned into protein-dense crackers; a jam made from bacon ends that would have ended up on the factory floor; a highly nutritious broth made from the “carrot dust” left after whole carrots are milled into bite-sized morsels.
Deutsch helped found the Upcycled Food Foundation, which promotes and certifies products that use upcycled ingredients – material that otherwise would not have gone toward human consumption and that has a positive impact on the environment.
Some Food Lab projects aim to boost population-level health. Concern about higher rates of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke among Black and lower-income adults led the lab to partner with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on a project, supported by the CDC, to reduce “stealth” sources of sodium on a broad scale.
The lab worked with Amoroso’s Baking Company to develop a low-sodium, whole-wheat hoagie bread and rolled it out – pun intended – in the city’s school cafeterias in 2019. It subtracted 1,300 pounds of salt a year from the diets of Philadelphia public school children.
Still other projects fall into the bucket of “food as medicine.” There’s a natural, candy-like laxative, made from prunes, dates and coconut, that doesn’t strip beneficial bacteria from the gut, and an ice cream that has the nutritional profile of Ensure but doesn’t make older adults feel babied by having to sip it through a straw. Food Lab staff and students have teamed with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on anti-nausea frozen pops made from natural ingredients.
The Food Lab’s mission – to help people, the planet, and the economy – is echoing across the country, from colleges to corporations. 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 laboratories for food that is healthy, sustainably produced, and “unapologetically delicious.”
The National Produce Prescription Collaborative, established in 2021, works to embed “produce prescriptions” – that is, doctors’ scrips for patients on government-sponsored health plans to get healthy food in the same way they would get prescription medicine – into clinical practice.
Deutsch, who worked in what he calls the “big, bad food industry” before coming to Drexel, unwinds 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’re currently out of those crackers that kept the 4-year-old out of the dog food. But they may become more widely available to kids with autism-related 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 those crackers to market.
“Ultimately,” says Deutsch, “we’re trying to improve the food system in incremental ways.”