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Food of the Future: Science Meets Pragmatism

EHL Insights
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When I think of my favorite foods, an image of my parents’ dining table is conjured up in my mind. Moments shared praising Mum’s roast potatoes, nods in agreement that they are the best we’ve ever tasted amid rising steam and rich aromas. There is a warmth to that food that goes beyond the heat of the oven, it reaches into your heart and strengthens family ties. Whatever social scenario you associate with your favorite foods, or even if you prefer to savor meals in solitude, there is an undeniable cultural quality to eating. It is the stuff of memories, stories, life.

Sadly, not everyone is fortunate enough to be accustomed to a full dinner plate. And our eating habits, as well intentioned as they may be, have an impact both on our bodies and on the world at large. This puts food consumption squarely at the interface of business, politics and civil society. Negotiating the myriad of expectations of the food industry in years to come will therefore be a complex and, at times, contradictory endeavor. It will require the full might of science and require us as citizens of the world to make well-considered food choices. Let’s take a look at the food of the future.

Pure pragmatism

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, while the number of people going hungry worldwide had been declining for decades, this is no longer the case: “More than 820 million people do not have enough to eat.” Add to this the “global obesity epidemic”, and it is clear supply must change if it is to meet demand. Alongside overcoming food waste and distribution challenges, providing food security will require us to think outside of the box.

Examples of this include looking to the sea for sources of nutrients. This has seen the likes of algae creep into our protein bars and seaweed graduate from sushi wrapper to ice cream flavoring. These natural food sources go hand in hand with low-impact production, much to the tastes of socially responsible millennials. With the Greta effect being only the tip of the iceberg, it is (finally) simply fashionable to live sustainably, and transparency and traceability are now key factors in gastronomy.

Meat consumption has long since been identified as damaging to our environment, adding fuel to the vegan movement by means of insects, high-protein plant-based alternatives such as jackfruit, and imitation burgers, for instance. Expect to see this range expanding, with bright minds like those at Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Moving Mountains working on new products, such as plant-based steaks and chicken. Other startups are pioneering animal-free milk and egg whites.

For the good of our health

Genetics and molecular science are set to play an important role in the food of the future in two ways, in particular:

  1. Enhancing the nutritional value of crops
    While genetically modifying foodstuffs is subject to controversy, the addition of genes taken from Papua New Guinean bananas, for example, has yielded bananas with high levels of the important nutrient provitamin A in Australian bananas. Taking things up a notch, splicing in DNA from a bacterium has been found to boost corn’s methionine content. Then there are modifications that improve our body’s absorption of certain substances when the product is consumed. These existing methods are set to take on an entirely new dimension thanks to the unprecedented accuracy of “CRISPR-Cas9” technology, which serves to edit plant genetic code. Let’s just say peanuts that don’t trigger allergies are waiting in the wings.

  2. Tailoring our diet to our genome
    You may already find companies offering “nutrigenetics services”, but these dietary recommendations based on our bodies’ idiosyncratic handling of nutrients are currently in their infancy. According to the BBC’s Science Focus Magazine, the next ten years will see the underlying genetics knowledge base mature, enabling nutritional scientists to give personalized instructions as to what kinds of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains to eat, as well as how often.

Food technology is also likely to play its part in healing the world in the short term by re-engineering junk funk, lowering its fat, sugar, salt and calorie content. Replacing sugar and artificial sweeteners (which come with their own array of downsides) with specially sugar-coated mineral particles, increasing the taste-bud-tantalizing surface area that comes into contact with the tongue has already brought us one step closer to guilt-free treats.

Data-driven destiny

With technological advancement being what it is, it is easy to imagine a smart kitchen equipped with robotics and 3D printers far outperforming human hands when it comes to intricate details. Pushing our imaginations to the brink, however, a Fast Company article toys with the idea of a “Citizen Food Score”, which would see the government tallying data on our day-to-day consumption choices, withholding food products if ever our daily carbon footprint was too large or we had already consumed our allotted calories. Considering how fitness apps presently inform health insurers, perhaps this isn’t so out of the question after all?

A matter of taste?

What ever happened to eating simply because food tastes good? Neurogastronomy, combining insights from neurology and food science, may well seek to manipulate our senses to increase our food enjoyment. Strategically chosen sound effects, perhaps? Controlled lighting, maybe? As you can see, the food of the future will be about much more than family dinner.

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