An Interview with Dr. Sergiy Smetana

Dr. Smetana's work includes sustainability assessment of alternative protein sources and innovative food processing technologies.

Dr. Sergiy Smetana

Head of Food Data Group, German Institute of Food Technologies (DIL e.V.)

Sergiy Smetana

Dr. Sergiy Smetana will present "Sustainability of Plant, Hybrid and Meat Products" during the session on Plant Proteins and Sustainability on Friday, October 23.

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About Dr. Sergiy Smetana

Dr. Sergiy Smetana works as a Head of Food Data Group at the German Institute of Food Technologies (DIL e.V.) since 2017. However, he joined the institute in 2013 and was responsible for sustainability assessment of food and food technologies. Before that, he worked as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in Brook Byers Institute of Sustainable Systems (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA) for a year and as a Leading Engineer in the Institute of Nature Management and Environmental Problems (Ukraine) for six years. During his career, he has been responsible for environmental impact assessment of technologies (related to food, mining and landscape construction). The focus of his current activities includes sustainability assessment of alternative protein sources, innovative food processing technologies and data analysis of complex food systems.

What discoveries from your previous research inform the work you plan to discuss at the Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum?

My presentation at the forum will focus on life cycle assessment, or sustainability assessment, of plant protein sources versus hybrid products. This may sound quite simple, but it happens to be not quite as simple as it initially seems.

There are a few main parts.

First, looking at the meat products and meat sources, one can see there is a great variation in their environmental impacts. Second, perhaps surprisingly, plant proteins also have varying environmental impacts. Though these products are quite well studied in isolation, their impact as a hybrid product is less understood.

For example, the consideration of biodiversity impact is quite complicated. When we combine plant and animal-based products, that analysis becomes even more complicated.

In theory, adding plants to animal-based products should reduce the environmental impact of animal-based products; however, in many cases, that is not the case, due to a variety of factors and that’s where my presentation comes into play. My presentation will cover technical options and processing to succeed at making plant and animal products that actually reduce these products’ relative environmental impact. It is not always straightforward.

What is the significance of the research you plan to discuss at the Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum, either for future research routes or for real-world applications?

The significance of my research connects with a few points. The first point, of course, is that as a German Institute of Food Technologists (DIL), we want to support those protein sources and those technologies which are more sustainable such as plant-based protein sources. Those products, which are more sustainable and have low environmental impact, can provide enough profit for companies and enough nutrients for consumers.

Alternative, more sustainable protein sources, in general, are a major trend in the current research. Blends and hybrid products occupy a very strong position here because their environmental impact is low, but it usually means that we have to mix protein sources to assure the functionality or find some solutions to improve their nutritional properties.

So, the first point is related to sustainability in terms of significance. The second point is related to the biomass’s technical properties, and how it can be processed. We have to ask ourselves which protein sources, plant and animal, can we mix effectively to create sustainable and nutritious products. But we also must consider the product’s taste and acceptance properties, meaning how well the consumer will accept, and eventually purchase, this new product.

Hybridizing plant and animal proteins is not novel, it is something we do often in cooking. But we are trying to take it to the next level by considering insects and microalgae as potential ingredients. In all likelihood, these will take consumers longer to accept and so media and marketing will play a crucial role in getting the public to accept these hybrid alternatives.

In sum, the goal is for our products to help consumers feel good about the product’s environmental impact and its impact on the consumer’s health. Beyond that, we also want our consumers to enjoy the flavor and thus turn to it as a viable protein alternative.

Describe the biggest problem you encountered and solved during your most recent project?

The biggest problem I have encountered is a lack of precise comparable data to evaluate the environmental impact of these hybrid products.

In theory, it seems simple, if the product is half animal-based protein and half plant-based protein, to get its environmental impact, you just mix the ingredients’ impacts 50-50 and you’ve got your new product’s environmental impact, but what we have found is that is not the case. The processing of these ingredients plays a larger role and thus makes the calculation more complicated. Practical trials are key to unraveling this complexity.

Another scientific challenge I have encountered is being able to predict how these products will translate to the end product’s taste and texture before testing. A product may taste great but then result in a negative environmental impact and vice versa.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a scientist and/or industry professional.

As a sustainability and life cycle assessment expert, the turning point in my career was when I realized that I do not know anything about anything. Scientists have certain level of myths and beliefs about data, but there are times when you put your hardcore data through your analyses and then you realize the data does not always behave the way you predicted, and your mind really shifts very rapidly.

Another turning point for me was that I realized that even knowing the basics, you and your methods are not bulletproof, and they can be challenged. But using data the right way, with the right amount of data, with the right approach, you can get very interesting results, which, of course, for me, is super interesting.

That pretty much describes the life cycle assessment process. Even after doing life cycle assessment for 10 years, I can still say that in many cases, I cannot predict what will be the outcome.

While the numbers do not lie, they don’t always translate into experience the way you expect. The struggle is the paradox, you know a steak is bad for the environment, but then you see it and smell it and say well….it’s this paradox that we are trying to resolve, so that you don’t have to choose between taste, texture and environmental impact.

What excites you about your work?

I am excited that I cannot predict the product’s experience from the numbers. What also excites me about my work is that I am always discovering and learning. You could say, I am a life cycle researcher who is always growing.

What are potential future directions for the work you are discussing at the Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum?

Future directions are really endless as we look forward to, from a processing perspective, what can be combined into hybrid products – for instance, can milk and insects be combined to make a new hybrid product? And what would that product’s benefits be?

We are also looking at new sources of proteins, like grass, from new plants to see which can provide new qualities to fulfill the consumer’s needs and translate them into the specific products.

By performing life cycle assessments, we can make sure that these products also make sense from a sustainability perspective.

We are in a unique position to develop products that provide consumers a slower transition to more plant-based products. In addition to product quality, the key to this success is a matter of perception, as Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods have demonstrated for us.

What do you like to do when you are not in the lab or presenting at meetings?

Some of what I do outside of the lab intersects with my work in the lab. My involvement in the IFT Protein Division has led me to help organize a Battle of Proteins, where attendees try different burgers at the same time, including plant-based meat, hybrid meat analogs and more. The event would hopefully be a kind of picnic in 2021 where experts could come together and discuss the burgers, challenges that went into creating those burger products, and what directions these products could go moving forward.

So, it is kind of a professional activity, but it is also a party where people can taste, chat and network, maybe over a beer.

I also really like to travel, but that, of course, does not happen anymore, at least, this year.