Three EHL students share examples of biomimicry insights from a Student Business Project (SBP) mandated by the recent partnership between Nestlé Research Centre and the EHL Institute for Nutrition Research & Development. The project consisted of understanding the basics of how biomimicry works and then finding biomimicry-related solutions to problems within the culinary F&B domain.
Biomimicry means “imitation of living” and aims at drawing inspiration from nature’s ways to find solutions to all sorts of life's questions. By mimicking nature's structures, processes and ecosystems, biomimicry provides opportunities to solve different problems that we, as humans, have created.
It is important to outline the subtle difference between biomimicry and bio-utilization. The first refers to the emulation of biological forms, processes and ecosystems to create sustainable designs. In contrast, the second requires the utilization of the living organism, which is not necessarily sustainable.
To fully comprehending the meaning of biomimicry and its aspects, it helps understand some existing solutions that have been applied to very specific problems. A very famous example of biomimicry in action is the Shinkansen Japanese high speed bullet train, which prior to taking inspiration from nature, produced a loud sound when leaving tunnels due to the change in air pressure. The challenge was to find a way for the train to travel more quietly without sacrificing speed or using more energy. The chief train engineer, whose passion was bird watching, noticed how kingfishers can dive into the water without creating any splash. He, therefore, decided to design the train to look more like this bird. His design solved the noise issue, cut electricity usage by 15%, and increased speed by 10%.
Within the culinary field, three main areas often come up as problematic when it comes to sustainability: cooking methods, waste management and food conservation. Add onto this other sub-categories such as overuse of non-recyclable plastics, the unappealing grey color of plant-based ‘meat’, and the overproduction and mishandling of food waste.
Biomimicry is a topic that can entirely occupy the mind and forces you to live your life through its lenses. You may find yourself identifying issues while grocery shopping and wondering “How can I fix this with biomimicry?” This happened during numerous moments of our daily lives, for example, while cooking and noticing how much waste is produced in terms of food and plastics, or while sorting out the trash and realizing how many materials could be re-used or avoided altogether. Similarly, while opening the kitchen cupboard or fridge and noticing spoiled or stale food, and wondering if there is a way to do something about it. These are just a few examples of how much biomimicry was really becoming a part of us and our daily routines.
The first concept we delivered on was about cooking methods and the question of structural color. The problem identified by Nestlé Research Centre was the unappealing grey color of their plant-based options that fail to resemble real meat.
We initially considered utilizing pigmentation for product coloration. However, this process is quite complex as the molecules accompanied by different optical absorption need to be synthesized and adequately mixed. Moreover, this concept would fall under the bio-utilization definition instead of biomimicry. Therefore, we decided to move in a different direction. After talking with different experts, something interesting emerged regarding the structural color and its potential application.
The first animal we considered for bio-inspiration is the peacock. Its tail feathers are brown, but because of their microscopic geometrical structure and how the light interacts and reflects on its surface, they present striking colors such as blue, turquoise and green.
The second animal is the Madagascan sunset moth, (Chrysiridia Rhipheus), whose wings create every color of the rainbow. Researchers have found an air-cuticle multilayer structure inside the moth’s wings that causes optical interference. The color pattern on the wings of these moths is produced by structural variation in the thickness of the air-cuticle multilayer. The thinner the cuticle on the wings, the more pink-red colors were present.
The idea is to then create a structural pattern, inspired by the animals mentioned above, either on the plant-based meats directly or on an edible film positioned on the patty to achieve a more red color to resemble real meat.
Further experimentation is required to find the best way to recreate this pattern successfully. Also, the thickness of the film, its resistance to heat, and humidity sensitivity require further testing. Finally, all the options available at the moment require expensive technology and present numerous other challenges.
This complicated yet promising solution will need to be reconsidered as new technologies arise. At present, they might seem long-term and difficult to implement. However, new materials and machines are invented every day, and something in the future might make this concept more approachable, cheaper and short-term.
Another major problem centered around the overuse of plastic packaging, linked to food conservation, is mycelium packaging. A significant challenge we identified in packaging was the overuse of non-biodegradable single-use plastics. One of the main benefits of using plastic is that it is very resistant; a plastic bottle of water, for example, has an average life of 450 years. But we all know what the downside to this is...
Taking several factors in consideration such as the strength of the packaging, its compelling aspect and finally the sustainable side, we looked to nature for inspiration and we found that the mushroom root, also called “mycelium”, fulfilled most of the criteria mentioned above. More specifically, what attracted us was the strong binding qualities of mycelium and the idea to use it to create a packaging strong enough that can protect the products during shipping and handling.
Through our research we found a company called Ecovative Design which is based in the USA that has already been using this alternative natural packaging. The manufacturing process is very simple as it only requires a small quantity of water to be sprayed on a mixture of agricultural waste and fungal spores. This will then trigger the growth of the mycelium which is put into a mold over the course of seven days to end up with the desired shape. The growth process is then stopped by using heat treatment.
The end result is a 100% natural packaging that decomposes in 45 days and that is hydrophobic and flame resistant. On top of this, the manufacturing process requires only minimal water and no light nor any chemical additives.
Further experimentation would be needed to see what kind of agricultural waste could be used as currently only wood chips, corn husks and hemp have been successful. Moreover, following interviews with experts, some concerns were raised as to whether the packaging could be used as a primary packaging in direct contact with food. Migration testing would be required to determine this issue.
As hospitality business students, this was an extremely challenging yet rewarding student business project to complete. We were confronted with having to think about the impact of the natural world on our everyday problems; issues related to F&B, and ultimately hospitality and more sustainable business ethics in general. We are proud of what we were able to achieve during the nine weeks of our SBP. A huge thank you goes to all the experts who provided us with invaluable help, as well as our clients Nestlé Research Centre and the EHL Institute for Nutrition, who motivated and guided us throughout.
As biomimicry has become something we will always consider and take with us to our future jobs and projects, we would like to end this article with some words from Mr Jacques Chirazi, Swiss biomimicry project manager, who we had the pleasure of interviewing during the project:
“Once you discover biomimicry, it never leaves you. Harnessing the science of biomimicry is an important step forward in the development of sustainable solutions to many food-related issues."