The World Food Prize this year will be awarded to Philip Nelson, a professor at Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana. He's being honored for developing technology to allow food to be stored and transported without refrigeration.
In announcing this year's winner, World Food Prize Foundation president Kenneth Quinn noted that many American food processors use aseptic techniques - which we'll explain in a moment - to bring food from farm to table.
"But perhaps most significantly, our laureate's technology permits food to be stored and transported within developing countries - there's a special project within Senegal to do that - and also allows relief agencies to deliver significant quantities of food and water to remote or cut-off areas during times of great crisis, such as the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina that hit the U.S. Gulf Coast."
World Food Prize laureate Philip Nelson describes the aseptic process as much like canning, except that the rapid heating and cooling of the food product takes place outside the container.
"We can actually heat it up very quickly and cool it down quickly. Therefore we don't lose nutrients and flavor. We sterilize the food outside of the container; we sterilize the container separately; and then, in a sterile environment, we bring the two together."
Not all foods can be processed this way. There are a lot of tubes and pumping involved, so liquids like fruit juices are ideal. Tomatoes, most of which end up in juices, sauces and other processed forms, are also ripe for aseptic processing. According to the World Food Prize Foundation, of almost 22 million [metric] tons of tomatoes harvested each year, 90% are processed aseptically.
"Probably the next biggest would be orange juice. We have banana puree. We've got a number of the exotic fruit purees that we use in fruit drinks. Grape, apple, apple products, pumpkin. A lot of different products."
Around the world, fruits and vegetables are processed aseptically and shipped in various kinds of aseptic containers. Think of them as the grown up version of the familiar liter box of milk or single-serving juice box you may have at home. Industry standard aseptic containers are flexible bags holding 1,100 liters. There are even ocean-going ships with giant aseptic storage tanks carrying, say tens of thousands of tons of orange juice from Brazil to North America. The sterilized food inside stays fresh for weeks, months or longer without refrigeration.
Although aseptic processing and shipping is in routine use in the global food chain, Dr. Nelson said it can also be valuable in coping with natural disasters or other emergencies.
"We can move product in bulk and distribute it. Our particular concern is water, moving water in, in that fashion, is very economical and could be widely used. So yes, I would expect more and more of that to be done."
The choice of Philip Nelson as the winner of this year's World Food Prize was welcomed by others in the food technology field, including John Rushing, professor of food science at North Carolina State University.
"Dr. Nelson is certainly a good choice for the World Food Prize. He is a top food technologist. He's been a leader in the field, and he's been very innovative over the years. We've had a real terrible problem moving product from one country to the other without a loss of product or without damage to the product. Aseptic processing allows us to do that."
The World Food Prize, which is worth a quarter-million dollars, will be presented to Philip Nelson in October.