December 14, 2023

How to enhance taste and nutritional value through vertical farming

Discover how vertical farming can transform taste and nutritional value through lighting, temperature, and other factors.

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Stand out from the crowd

Recent years have seen a significant shift in consumer focus towards leading healthier lifestyles, particularly through eating nutrient-rich foods.

Consumers are focused on meals that are fresh, nutritious, and contain fruit and vegetables. To capitalise on this trend, caterers, businesses and suppliers should look at producing foods which are not only delicious, but that also carry health benefits.

How vertical farming can help

One way this can be achieved is by using vertical farming technology, which also gives businesses the added benefits of being able to optimise flavour profiles, as well as lower carbon emissions and a guaranteed yield. Crops are nutritious – not to mention mouth-wateringly tasty – and can be produced year-round in a biosecure environment.

We spoke to IGS’ Head of Science, Tanveer Khan PhD, about the ins and outs of how vertical farming can be used to alter crop taste and nutritional content, and when this might be useful.

How different lighting affects crops

IGS technology is built using a patented LED lighting system and uses factors such as humidity, temperature, and nutrient delivery, to grow crops. By optimising these elements, growers can dial in on the perfect flavours to really enhance the consumer experience.  

So, what are the key elements to optimising taste profile and nutritional value through vertical farming?

“The flavour profile of any crop or fruit is due to a combination of genetics and environmental factors, such as light, temperature, nutrients, and humidity. When it comes to lighting, let’s go back back to basics. The sun gives off seven different colours. But plants don’t use all seven at the same time – they're essentially machines themselves, they know what to take and what to reject,” Tanveer begins.  

“This process has evolved in nature for millions of years, with plants having evolved by interacting with their surrounding environment. That has resulted in their characteristic phenotypic (appearance) and flavour profiles. The lights (and whatever nutrients are in the soil) are responsible for different characteristics. This can be seen with wines: grapes grown in France make a very different type of wine to grapes grown in Chile, or California, for example.”  

“At IGS we do something similar, but in a shorter period of time. We alter plant characteristics using our Total Control Environment Agriculture (TCEA) technology. We know the genetic makeup of varieties, and then we alter light, nutrients and other environmental conditions to change flavour profiles.”  

“It’s important to remember that it’s not just light that affects taste or nutritional value, though,” Tanveer continues. “It’s also down to the nutrients we give the crops, the crop itself, and at what stage in the crop’s growth we give both the nutrients and the lighting. But there are ways in which different lighting can significantly alter compounds.”

“You can vary red, green, blue, and far-red lighting, using different percentages to express different compounds that give taste characteristics to the crops themselves. Blue light can impact the shelf life of crops, making them last longer after being harvested. Red light can kick off compounds that amount to certain flavour profiles. In brassicas (a family to which cabbage and mustard belong) for example, there is a compound which gives off a very recognisable flavour – it’s pungent, almost sulfur-like. Different levels of red lighting can help to bring this out.”

Modifying taste and flavour profile in plants

Aside from being able to stand out from the competition, there are other scenarios when producing flavoursome crops helps a business.

“Lower air pressure, temperature and less oxygen (like when on a flight) all contribute to how things taste – often negatively. To get around this, airline caters could use vertical farming technology to alter the flavour profile of plants. This way, they would taste better and fresher under adverse conditions,” Tanveer continues.  

"Different types of lighting can be given in a certain ratio to specific plants, to create very different flavours. You can modify the nutrient profile of leafy greens by using certain light ratios. In kale and microgreens, for instance, this can work to improve antioxidants or enrich with other healthy metabolites.”

IGS research into flavour profiles

“At IGS, we conduct tests on crops using Growth Towers at our Crop Research Centre in Dundee, Scotland, to see how this can alter flavour profile. In rocket, for example, you can dry the crop just before harvest – or change the red lighting – to give it a punchier flavour.”

“Chives are another great example. We have tested multiple recipes and landed on one that made the flavour profile really aromatic. This meant that instead of buying in bulk from the market, businesses would only need a few stems (which could be grown using IGS technology) for real flavour. This makes for flavoursome crops to help them stand out from the crowd.”

"We currently only focus on starter plants, but this can also be done with fruit crops like strawberries and tomatoes, in which different combinations of lighting can be used to change the balance between the fruit’s sugar and acid content. This can make fruit crops more flavoursome.”

Optimising nutritional value

So, what about the health benefits: can we apply the same principles in order to make crops more nutritious? The health food industry is set to expand by 8.4% by 2028 to $646.11 billion, showing an ever-growing awareness of what we consume and how it affects our health. This presents an opportunity to focus on nutrient-rich foods, many of which can be produced using vertical farming technology.

“We are testing different light and temperature regimes to increase carotenoids in lettuce,” Tanveer says. “These are really good for the body as they protect cells against free radicals, which can cause heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.”

“As well as that, adding a certain type of light gives lettuce a distinct – slightly sweet – taste. This is interesting, as it means that you don’t need to add anything on top of the lettuce leaves for flavour. You can just use the lettuce leaves by themselves.”

How IGS technology can work in line with businesses

Enhancing specific compounds in crops can benefit multiple industries. This could prove particularly useful in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and cosmetics spaces, when there may be a need to - bulk produce a specific high-value compound to create different products.

“Large-scale caterers might also need to go to the market and buy crops in greater quantities to get the desired flavour profile for dishes,” Tanveer continues.

“However, when using IGS vertical farming technology, they could get the same (or better) flavour profile, using much lower quantities of produce. This also has the benefit of being more sustainable than crops produced, say, in a greenhouse or glasshouse, as well as being more economically efficient.”

Enhance flavour and nutrition with IGS technology

At IGS, Tanveer and her team at the Crop Research Centre use Total Control Environment Agriculture (TCEA) to control lighting, watering, CO2 levels, and nutrient delivery when conducting trials. This gives growers the information they need to fine-tune output and produce high-end, nutritious crops year-round, anywhere in the world. Our technology can also be easily integrated with renewable energy, allowing crops to be produced both sustainably and economically.

Want to learn more about what we do? Get in touch to speak with a member of the team.

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