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November 1, 2018

Agricultural R&D is on the Move as Restaurant Menus Get Healthier

McDonald’s iconic burgers are getting more “real.” The fast food giant recently announced that it plans to strip artificial ingredients from two-thirds of its menu. This announcement comes on the heels of a commitment earlier this year to market more balanced kids meals by offering new fruit and vegetables options in its Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals.

American eating habits are changing and to keep up, legacy brands such as McDonald’s are revamping their menus. Deloitte recently revealed that more than 75 percent of Americans self-reported they had healthy eating habits, and 83 percent said that traditional fast food menus failed to offer enough healthy choices.

In an effort to meet consumers’ demand for more low-calorie ingredients and fresh produce, restaurants are getting more creative with their food. McDonald’s has already introduced apple slices and easy-peel mandarins as kids meal options, and now its Australia team “is currently exploring new vegetable and lean protein options and McDonald’s France is looking at new vegetable offerings,” according to a company statement.

McDonald’s is not the only one that is trying to deliver cleaner and healthier food. Wendy’s, which has showcased its “start to fresh” partnership with Church Brothers Farms in the past, is focusing on growing its posh line of fresh salads. Sit-down restaurants are looking to inspire by incorporating new fresh produce varieties resulting from research and development (R&D) efforts. For example, the Cheesecake Factory is building many of its meals around broccolini, and Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar launched a Roasted Street Carrots menu item which featured organic, rainbow heirloom carrots with a Mexican street-corn flare. In fact, more and more niche food chains are popping up around the country to bring more of these new, creative fresh produce dishes that go beyond the “garden variety” (pun intended).

While these brands are making headlines and being lauded for the healthy changes in their menu items, the man behind the curtain is often overlooked. Farmers and agricultural professionals are the real innovators and concept creators behind new fruit and vegetable varieties.

Take Driscoll’s, for example, which has created a legacy of reinventing the “typical” berry. Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, has a team of agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant health scientists and entomologists who are constantly researching and developing new flavor profiles for its berries.

Based out of Driscoll’s R&D campus in Watsonville, known as Cassin Ranch, the team of “Joy Makers” are using natural traditional breeding processes such as hand cross-pollination to bring about new and improved varieties. This includes the company’s recently released Sunshine Raspberries—gold raspberries that are honeyed with peach and apricot notes—and Blush Berries—pale pink berries that are sweeter and rounder than the typical strawberry. The Joy Makers are also working hard to improve current varieties of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, making them sweeter, bigger, juicier, hardier and more resistant to pests and diseases.

Farmers continue to bring R&D to the forefront to enhance existing fruits and vegetables that consumers have grown to love. Just this March, Duda Farm Fresh Foods—which invests 2 percent of its annual budget in research and development—added six more patents to its celery varietals. Their impressive celery R&D program has resulted in 33 patents that contribute to enhancing the flavor and quality of celery grown in their fields. The addition of these new patents will allow for the development of new celery varieties and flavor profiles that are sweeter, crisper and have less strings.

“Duda has been innovating for 92 years, as we recognize that we have to be innovative to survive and thrive,” said Sammy Duda, senior vice president of national operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods. “With our continuing investments in R&D around flavor, taste, texture and convenience, we aim to improve the eating experience of our consumers while improving the sustainable production practices that are essential in today’s environment. We are excited about our investments and the new products the investments will allow us to introduce.”

In addition to creating new and improved varieties, farmers are also growing their commitment to R&D by expanding the market and offering new commodities to consumers.

Mulholland Citrus, which today specializes in easy-peel mandarins, was the first to propagate, grow and market the W. Murcott variety in the early 1990s. While traveling halfway around the world, in Morocco, Tom Muholland of Mulholland Citrus came across a species of citrus not available anywhere in the United States: the seedless W. Murcott mandarin. Mulholland Citrus then became the first American company to bring the mandarin to the United States. He named them “Delite” and launched the easy peel industry that was to follow.

“There are many types of citrus, and as farmers, we are the innovators looking for new varieties to develop to bring to the marketplace for the consumer to enjoy,” said Heather Mulholland, fourth-generation farmer and chief operating officer at Mulholland Citrus.

By the same token, broccolini—a broccoli-Chinese kale hybrid—graced our plates more than 20 years ago through the successful partnership between Mann Packing (which was recently acquired by Dole) and Sakata Seed. Broccolini, which has smaller florets and a longer, thinner stalk than broccoli, was developed by Sakata Seed’s plant breeders and successfully brought to the American market by Mann Packing. Today, the popularity of broccolini is rising and more restaurants ranging from fast casual to fine dining are using it in haute side dishes.

With changing diets, a rising world population and an increase in the global demand for food, the list of companies who are dedicated to prioritizing R&D continues to grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that private sector funding in food and agricultural R&D has risen rapidly over the last decade and now surpasses public sector funding. Between 2008 and 2013, public food and agricultural R&D declined by approximately 20 percent while private R&D funding increased by 64 percent. This includes investments in research, development and outreach of new varieties and technologies to mitigate animal and plant diseases, as well as increase productivity, sustainability and product quality.

The agricultural technology boom is also playing a significant role in the surge of R&D funding. AgFunder reported that in 2017, investment in agtech startups reached $10.1 billion—a 29 percent year-over-year increase. To support farmers’ efforts in innovating new fresh produce varieties, agtech start-up companies are developing technology to assist in everything from planning and optimization to automation and irrigation management. In fact, Hazel Technologies, a resident of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology and winner of the 2017 AgSharks™ Competition, has developed sachets that can be placed in boxes of fresh produce to extend shelf life. Hazel’s sachets time-release active ingredients into the storage atmosphere of commercially-packed produce, biochemically fighting spoilage by slowing the aging process and proliferation of disease.

As investment in R&D continues to soar, new innovations, such as Hazel’s spoilage-fighting inserts, are game changers for the industry. It can open doors for new fresh produce varieties to flourish and perhaps become the star menu items at local restaurants.