I do not have to stress how important part food and eating play in our lives. Food is at the bottom in Maslow’s hierarchy of our needs, it is essential for our survival. It shows perfectly the creativity of humankind: food exists in the richest variety of ingredients, forms, shapes, tastes and colors all over the universe from the Greenlandic kiviak (dozens of small birds stuffed into a seal fermented under a rock) through the Liquid Pea Sphere of molecular gastronomy until the tagliatelle with hand-cut meat ragout from the world’s best restaurant, Osteria Francescana.
Food = survival + eating = social event
Everyone knows that eating is also a key social event. It has its own culture, its own ceremonies in every society and group. Providing food and eating has been a common activity for groups of people since the Stone Age: men hunted mammoths in groups while women collected edible berries, and then they ate the prey together. This notion has not changed a bit. The stove or the fireplace has been the central part of every household for millennia. Families gathered around in the kitchen, shared their meal and their stories. Eating brings people together, initiates discussions, bridges or separates people based on differences in taste.
The radical technological changes, innovations and societal upheavals of the 20th and 21st centuries have left their marks also on our food and eating habits. Fast-food restaurants vs. healthy lifestyle, food allergies/conscious cooking vs. random eating patterns/ eating disorders, obesity in the developed world vs. hunger/famines in the developing countries, mass food production vs. local farming. Are there any clear trends in this cacophony? How does the future of food and eating look like? Can we possibly grasp what will we eat twenty years from now, and how will we eat it?
According to my observation, concerning food and eating, there are currently at least five pressing issues on the table. I believe that the future of food points into the direction where technology and innovation offers a solution for them.
1) We don’t know what we eat
Seriously, we have no idea what we buy in the supermarket or what is on our plates in the canteen. Where did the eggplant come from what you had for lunch? And where was the chicken bred? And the glass of wine you had for dinner? Although ingredients are listed on most of the products we buy, more often than not, we have absolutely no idea where our food comes from, where did it grow or where was it bred, what substances it contains. And let’s be honest: as more and more people live in urban environment, the chances for you growing your own vegetables and having your own chicken farm are pretty low (and yes, I know that urban gardening is becoming popular, still, it might provide only a fragment of the necessary food).
It is pretty scary as you do not know whether your meal is healthy or even digestible for your stomach. Moreover, extrapolating from European statistics, 220 to 250 million people may suffer from food allergies worldwide. In the US one out of three people has a food allergy or modifies the family diet because of a suspected food allergy in a family member. Approximately 5% of children and 4% of teens and adults have clinically proven allergic reactions to foods.
The solution might come from food scanners
One remedy to our ignorance would be having a list of exactly what ingredients and how many calories a meal contains, and what allergens and toxins might be in it. I mean not just the kind of meal we eat but the actual food on our plate and its specific amount. Several companies have been trying to address this.
Food scanners will be able to tell how many grams of sugar a piece of fruit contains, or what the alcohol percentage of a drink is. Canadian TellSpec aims to develop a hand–held food scanner that can inform users about specific ingredients and macronutrients.
Another device, SCiO, from Israel, uses a technology similar to TellSpec’s but is designed to identify the molecular content of foods, medicines, and even plants. It illuminates an object; optical sensors detect the reflected light; and the device analyzes it using an algorithm and a cloud–based database that is constantly updated. Penguin Sensor measures whether there are harmful toxins in your food. It is helpful if you would like to make sure that pesticides or antibiotics avoid your food. The start-up especially recommends it to families with small babies, kindergardens, school cafeterias, nursing homes etc. I believe every parent would send his kid off to school more relaxed knowing that even if the kid refuses to learn anything at least he will eat something healthy.
The Nima gluten-sensor was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2015. It is a portable, nicely designed gadget, which is able to tell you from a small food sample within two minutes, whether the food on your plate contains gluten. The firm also hopes to apply its technology to detect other food allergens, including peanuts and dairy.
Although the technology is promising, development is in its infancy. There are two major issues. One is size, because the food scanner must be hand–held to become popular. With current technology this means engineers have to sacrifice sensitivity and accuracy in order to achieve a convenient size. The other issue is the algorithm. SCiO sends data to the cloud which then sends its calculation back to the device. But to simplify what the algorithm has to do, users need to tell the scanner specifics – like whether the sample is a solid food, a liquid, or vegetable.
2) We don’t know what we should eat
So food scanners tell me what I am eating. Great! And what is the next step? Do we know what we should or shouldn’t eat? One day scientists state that animal milk is unhealthy, the other day that it isn’t. According to one diet, you should not eat carbohydrate, another one says you should have food from all kinds of colors on your plate. No wonder, people are puzzled by their food and often have a frustrated connection to eating. It is also logical that intuitive eating is getting more popular. It says that you should pay attention to your body and its needs – eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full. So simple. But if you want to add more reason and scientific explanation to your body’s needs, let me introduce you nutrigenomics.
The solution might come from nutrigenomics
It is a brand-new cross-field combining genetics and nutrition science. The basic idea behind nutrigenomics is that our genome reveals valuable information about our organism’s needs, which we should map out and utilize in order to lead a long and healthy life. After having your DNA sequenced (perhaps already at home!), a smart app could let you know which food you should eat and what you should avoid at all cost. As we are all genetically different, our diet should be personalized. For me, the data of my complete DNA sequence at home in a digital file showed me that I’m sensitive to caffeine and process alcohol more thoroughly than most people (I’m Hungarian after all).
Nutrigenomics tries to understand how nutrition affects our metabolic pathways, and what we can do to get the most out of nutrition in a personalized way. If I choose the other type of meat or cheese as the smartphone app suggests based on my DNA, I will enjoy the meal more and take a better care of my body on the long–term. With access to such data a scanner or app could tell us what products not to buy at the grocery store, what type of food makes us more productive, sleep better, or just feel healthy. Right now we’re depending on blind luck.
The California-based start-up, Habit, would like to eliminate exactly the effects of such blind luck. It plans to use genetic markers to identify the ideal meal for each of its customers, and send that meal directly to their doors. You only need to send back their required blood sample kit, do their so-called “metabolic challenge” and provide a series of body metrics like height, weight, and waist circumference as well as lifestyle habit like how often a person walks, runs, or exercises. All of this analysis leads to a personalized meal plan of foods that works best for the user’s body.
3) We don’t know how we should eat (with what, when and how often)
After discovering what we are eating and what we should, eating habits should be examined a bit more thoroughly. Did you have a strict eating routine when you grew up? Breakfast at 7.30 am, lunch at 12 pm and dinner at 7 pm? Or did you just eat whenever and wherever you got hungry? Could you have dessert before dinner? Or did your mom just tell you, good kids eat the peas first, then cake might come later? Do you eat slowly or do you finish your rib-eye steak in seconds after the magic word ‘bon appetite!’ is said? Do you eat one big meal or have many smaller ones? And regarding all these questions, do you know which choice is healthier?
Help might come from smart utensils
While technology and innovation might not be enough in itself to sort out every mystery around our eating habits, there are couple of great solutions on the market, which might help in creating a healthy eating routine. For example, the smart fork named Hapifork teaches you, how to eat slowly and enjoy your food. As eating too fast leads to poor digestion and poor weight control, Hapifork helps to monitor, track and eventually change eating habits. For example, you can upload your data online to be able to follow the progress.
Smart utensils might also enable people with eating problems enjoy their food again. For many elderly people and patients with hand tremor, eating is torture. They lift their hands, but the food falls out of the spoon, and at the end of the meal they will be just as hungry as they started. The Liftware stabilizing handle might mean salvation for them. The smart utensil stabilizes hand motion, and enables the hand to shake 70 per cent less. Besides, the utensil comes with soup as well as fork attachment to broaden the horizon of meals.
Do you also have a distaste for plastic plates and plastic utensils? Do you think that their utilization is just a completely unnecessary wasting of natural resources? I can assure you, there are already attempts to replace them. The US-based company, Loliware, introduced the ‘Glass of the Future’, an edible and biodegradable glass, which might revolutionize the industry of disposable kitchenware last spring. The cute and colorful cups are made from seaweed, organic sweeteners and flavors and colors derived from fruits and vegetables.
4) We don’t know whether food creation should be limited to one industry
Lately, there is a trend for challenging the boundaries of food creation and combining cooking with various disciplines. One of the most well-known field is molecular gastronomy, somewhere on the boundaries of chemistry, physics and food production. In a restaurant experimenting with molecular gastronomy, such weird meals could fall on your plate, as transparent ravioli, solid cocktail or Aperol gel.
Another direction is the combination of food creation with engineering. Eventually people may start printing out food at home. Those who want to turn to technological solutions instead of spending time with preparing and cooking meals will have a chance to use 3D printers at home.
The Foodini project received great attention when the first articles were published about printing out food at home. CMO & Co–founder of Natural Machines, Lynette Kucsma told me the plan is to print food using fresh ingredients instead of creating artificial food. A 2015 Kickstarter scheme called Bocusini strives to print out precision objects in sugar and marzipan. A simple 3D printer with a heated extrusion head uses cartridges of marzipan, chocolate, and fudge. The German team behind the idea wants people to be able to hack this food printer to make it personalized and use it at home from 2016.
Biozoon prints out gourmet-looking food for seniors who need to eat purified meals. ZMorph and Choc Edge can print out chocolate in whatever forms the user wants. In 2013, NASA’s food printer has printed a proof–of–concept thin pizza that baked in 70 seconds after printing. And the end product is not always pizza, but anything they can model through the software.
5) Half of the world is obese, the other half is fighting hunger
It is one of the most absurd phenomena, but it characterizes well the schizophrenic eating habits of our world.
Globally, about 35 % of adults are overweight, with half a billion being obese with a body mass index of over 30. On the other hand, the World Food Programme provided some disheartening statistics about famine worldwide. About 805 million people don’t have adequate nutrition. It means one in nine people globally. The highest percentage of undernourished populations is in Sub–Sahara Africa. Poor nutrition causes nearly half the deaths in children under five years–old. About 66 million schoolchildren across the world are hungry. The list goes on.
Ensuring food security and receiving relief from other countries could drive these numbers lower than they were in the 1990s when over a billion people were undernourished. But there is still many ways to go. Given that traditional approaches haven’t mitigated the problem satisfactorily, we might ask what technology can offer.
The future is cultured, not slaughtered
While obesity might be contained with the help of food scanners, an appropriate diet based on nutrigenetic data and sports, food shortages require a different approach.
The Cultured Beef Project aims to create artificial meat in the laboratory. Technicians remove muscle cells from the shoulder of a cow, and feed the cells with a nutrient mix in a Petri dish, and they grow into muscle tissue. From a few starter cells one can derive tens of tons of meat. The whole world could be fed with meat from muscle cells grown in a lab.
In 2013 the cost of lab–grown meat for a hamburger was $325,000. By 2016 it had dropped to below $50. The biggest obstacle so far is not technology but the taste–that is unlike what people are used to because blood, fat, and connective tissue are missing. But researchers are working to improve that. The slogan of a similar company, Modern Meadow, says that the “future is cultured, not slaughtered”.
A team in San Francisco is working on vegan cheese that contains protein identical to milk protein but doesn’t come from animals. They transform yeast cells into miniature milk–protein factories. It isn’t a cheese substitute, but real cheese that has no animal origin. Their process is more environmentally sustainable than standard cheese–making.
The startup Muufri hopes to design yeast cultures that can produce milk proteins. This retains the taste and nutritional value of real milk. It could be accessible to many people worldwide less expensively than dairy milk. Dairy production is responsible for about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. Muufri argues that making an entire cow to make just the milk is inefficient. They can control what the milk actually contains, and while their milk cannot provide the same quality that Mother Nature does, it can come close.
An extreme solution for people who consider eating an unnecessary burden, is Soylent. A meal replacement powder mixed with water that contains all the nutrition necessary for an average adult. The company advises consumers to supplement traditional meals until they find their preferred balance between Soylent and real food. The company hopes its produce will save time and effort by eliminating the need to prepare every meal. However, as eating is not only about getting nutrients, vitamins and some materials down to our throats, but enjoying the taste, the color, the consistency or the smell of our food, Soylent might find it necessary to give its products “food-like” characteristics in the future.
As the world’s demand for meat will soon outpace our supply of cow, pigs, chickens or other edible animals, the age of cultured meat and engineered food might offer the solution to save billions of lives in the developed and developing countries.
Imagine the kitchen of the future!
The mom uses a smart knife to cut carrots, the little boy uses a food sensor to get to know whether the bread in front of him contains gluten. The family possesses a 3D-food-printer able to print out the dad’s favourite four-cheese pizza, they have a smart scale, a smart fridge and all kinds of useful kitchen gadgets. And look at the picture more closely! What do you notice? Yes, the family is together, they are preparing a meal together.
I believe technology will not necessarily and of course should not replace the social components of eating. Rather, it should extend it and solve global problems from obesity to hunger. We decide how we incorporate disruptive innovations into our everyday diet. What certain is we need to take care of our eating habits and keep it under control. New technologies provide us with a chance today. Let’s use it wisely.