New Horizons - Feb 18, 2020

Hacking Food. Rethinking how we eat.

Trends such as vegan food, delivery services and local ingredients are all influencing how we eat and nutrition engineers are researching meat-replacement products, 3D printing foodstuffs and genetic engineering. At the same time, the desire to reduce food waste and protect the environment are also affecting our habits. In a study, futurists at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Switzerland have posed the question: What will our eating habits of tomorrow be? How will technological innovations disrupt food and our lifestyles, and how might they make the world a better place?

Never before have we enjoyed such a rich variety of food and never before has what we eat been so influenced by trends. You don’t need to search for too long on Instagram before you’ll find influencers posting all kinds of dishes, salads and desserts all finely garnished and with exotic names. Then there’s the constant appeal to eat more healthily and the products that will (supposedly) help you do so are ubiquitous, and of course, we want all of these things available around the clock. It’s long been possible to take advantage of supermarket offers, order fresh produce from the nearest organic farm and get hold of foreign delicacies all via app and delivered to your door. Delivery companies now sometimes guarantee same-day delivery and their algorithms are able to send user-related offers, while meeting the challenges of last mile delivery has resulted in some solutions which wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi film. For example, the tech company, Starship Technologies, joined forces with the caterer Sodexo to introduce a delivery bot on the Washington University campus. For a fee, students and lecturers can use an app to order food and drinks, which is delivered within the shortest possible time by one of a fleet of 25 robots.

Illustrations © Joppe Berlin/ GDI 2019

It won’t be long before our deliveries come via drone. Amazon is planning to start deliveries from flying warehouses equipped with fleets of drones in the next few years, while the vehicle manufacturer, Daimler, has been working with the transport drone start-up company, Matternet, since 2015 on the Vans & Drones idea which envisages a Mercedes van as a receiving station and landing site for drones, which make deliveries through windows and balcony doors. How these delivery drones can be used is still being tested and crashes happen again and again. Despite that, the futurists at GDI are sure that this ever-increasing range of delivery options is fundamentally changing gastronomy as production and consumption move further apart. In extreme cases, restaurants exist purely online with no bricks and mortar premises. An example of this virtual concept is SushiYaa in Dallas. This small sushi chain has five physical restaurants operating under the SushiYaa name, but in the kitchen, dishes are also prepared for some two dozen virtual restaurants, which offer something completely different and are only available on Uber Eats. A research report by Swiss Bank, UBS, sees annual revenue growth from $35 million to $365 billion in the global delivery services industry and virtual restaurant chains by 2030. And that doesn’t take into account virtual supermarkets.

Complete traceability.

Where do these delivery companies get their ingredients? In western industrialised nations, people are thinking more about sources, production conditions and sustainability. Local is the new organic. Shops selling organically produced goods have long been a feature on our high streets, but the demand for carrots grown by the farmer down the road is increasing. But how can the consumer know if the vegetables and fish in the supermarket are really from sustainable sources? The huge number of certification seals and overworked salespeople are certainly not very helpful. There is enormous potential for the use of blockchain technologies particularly when it comes to guaranteeing compliance with ecological and social standards. Providers like Opensc, IBM Food Trust, and Bext360 rely on this technology to make coffee, cocoa and fish supply chains transparent, which sees, for example, fishing trawlers tracked via GPS. Every catch is given an RFID tag and, therefore, a unique identity and includes all kinds of information such as the exact latitude and longitude the catch was made, the name of the trawler and the captain. After the fish has been fileted, all of this information is printed on the packaging in the form of a QR code that the end consumer can scan with their smartphones.

Customisable consumption.

Even if we consider sustainable fresh fish to be healthy, it isn’t the best option for everyone. Our genes and the bacteria in our digestive tracts determine whether or not food that is considered as healthy actually has a detrimental effect on our bodies. Research in this field has led to a new trend—nutrigenomics. This science attempts to shine a light on the relationship between molecular biology, genetics and classic nutritional science. In the long term, researchers hope it will be possible to give nutritional advice tailored to an individual’s genetic traits after analysing their DNA. So for example, people with a specific gene variant break down caffeine very slowly, and so are at increased risk of heart attacks And genetic changes in a certain part of the body inhibit fat oxidation, increasing its storage instead. Other people can’t produce enough folic acid resulting in high homocysteine levels and thus an increased risk of stroke. In the future, diners at restaurants might be swabbing the inside of their mouths for DNA instead of perusing a menu. The waiter would collect the samples and take them to a lab in the kitchen where the cells could be quickly analysed and different meals suggested. This means that diners not only receive dishes that suit their tastes, but that also take into account their genetics. Unfortunately, that could mean that the espresso or calvados after a meal may become a thing of the past.

Meat and climate change.

Opinions on whether or not meat is healthy differ greatly. Rising consumption is not beneficial for Earth as population growth and the desire for meat is causing issues for our planet. Three quarters of agricultural land globally is used for the production of animal feed alone and ruminant animals like cows are the second biggest source of methane after fossil fuels. Together, the five biggest meat and dairy producers emit more greenhouse gases than the oil company, ExxonMobil. By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion mouths to feed, but the consequences of deforestation and increased fertiliser use are already having devastating effects in some areas. There has been an increasing awareness around the globe of how our consumption and eating habits are affecting the climate. and the demand for alternatives is growing. One vision for the future is the idea that no livestock will have to die to feed our desire for meat for example, by eating animal protein gained from insects, vegan substitutes or meat products created in the lab. Scientists and start-ups have been working for many years on creating artificial meat for which there are several names: laboratory, cultivated, clean and in-vitro meat. In 2013, a research team from the University of Maastricht created the first synthetic meat—at a cost of over $300,000.

It develops in the same way as conventional meat, but the cells grow outside of the body. To do this, stem cells are taken from animals’ muscles as these cells grow new tissue if muscles are damaged and should also be able to do so outside of the body. After removal, these cells are stored in a container with nutrients and growth enhancers so that they can multiply as they would in the body. These cells slowly develop into muscle fibres and one sample can have up to 800 million strands of muscle tissue—enough for 80,000 burger patties. Lab-grown meat is a massive growth market, valued at $1.5 million in the USA and predicted to grow by nearly 75% by 2034. Numerous providers such as Beyond Meat, The Vegetarian Butcher, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meat are vying for the attention of investors. Even large corporations like Unilever, Tyson Foods, Kellogg’s and Nestlé are expanding their businesses with veggie burgers and the like, not to mention fish from petri dishes. The start-up, Finless Foods, is looking to bring cultivated tuna onto the market by the end of 2019, while Singapore-based Shiok Meats is breeding shrimp in the lab. Another option is insects. Mealworm burgers are already available in many European countries. The restaurant chain Hans im Glück offers an insect burger from the start-up, Bugfoundation.

Food hot off the 3D presses.

Another trend that the GDI team think will soon become part of our everyday life is printed food—a trend that is slowly becoming a mass movement with the fifth annual 3D Food Printing Conference taking place in 2020. Meat remains a central focus, with the Israeli start-up Redefine Meat recently creating a vegan meat substitute with a 3D printer. Even in space, meat has been printed onboard the ISS for astronauts, who previously had to make do with vacuum-packed or dried produce. Much more down to earth is Print2Taste that has developed a 3D printer for producing chocolate at home. The device is equipped with fine syringe printheads and cartridges filled with chocolate glaze to create any shape and letter. Just as with a graphics program, the software can be used with over 100 templates or you can design your own creations. It’s relatively easy to use: The glaze is slowly released through the spray nozzle and is carefully layered resulting in a cookie or 3D letter. Even the traditional pasta manufacturer, Barilla, prints durum wheat pasta exclusively for its restaurant customers in its BluRhapsody factory as conventional manufacture is not possible. The flash-frozen pasta is then delivered to where it is needed.

How we will produce, consume and distribute food in the future is a global challenge. New technologies are helping to make production more efficient and environmentally friendly. Digitalisation is ensuring the supply chain more transparent while smart farming is optimising the use of resources and yields.

It is however, individual consumer behaviour alongside global market behaviour and political factors that can cause the biggest shake up. If we make the right decisions, innovations could mean that food hacking will mean better eating for everyone.


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This post was published on Feb 18, 2020 and updated on Apr 22, 2021.