Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would never have even dreamt of all the different varieties of processed food that has become a norm today, let alone the level of automation humans have managed to accomplish within the food industry. Given this, it’s not hard to imagine all the fascinating things the future holds for us, in terms of the food we eat and how it is produced.
Food Production: In 1810, A Parisian confectioner introduced the world to canning as a method of food preservation. Today everything from fruits and vegetables to meat and fish are canned to increase their shelf life. The packaged food industry worldwide is expected to reach 2.6 trillion US dollars in sales this year alone. We have definitely come a long way since the days of foraging and harvesting, thanks to the advancements in science and technology that allow us to mass-produce food.
However, mass-production at the scale that it’s done today comes with a number of unfavorable consequences. It has long been known that modern day livestock farming poses a danger for humans and animals alike. The good news is that changes are well under way, and animal welfare advocates can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief within the next couple of decades or so. Lab-grown meat and meat alternatives are being developed as we speak, and the industry is set to grow with exciting inventions on the way.
Scientists have finally found ways to produce meat to meet the world’s growing demand without causing harm to biodiversity and the environment, and without having to compromise on taste. Within these labs they have the capacity to produce meat in large quantities using stem cells from only a single muscle sample. Even the cost of production has dramatically come down (from a shocking 325,000 US dollars for the first lab-grown burger), so the outlook remains positive.
Consumers can expect to see a wide variety of cultured “clean meat” in the future – beef, poultry and even seafood – but this is not all the meat industry has in store for us. It is predicted that more people will be leaning towards non-traditional food sources, like edible insects. Despite the “ick factor”, pioneers in the food industry are quite enthusiastic about insect farming due to its many advantages, such as requiring less space, energy and resources. Other bizarre trends that are expected to make an appearance in the future include algae-based food, with an aim to reduce our carbon footprint.
In the realm of plant-based nutrition, more good news awaits. Although genetically-modified crops which resulted from selective breeding have been around for years, the gene-edited crops that are being created in today’s labs have a far greater appeal. By tweaking the DNA of a crop, it can be optimized to have the right balance of micronutrients or bioactives to cater to particular consumer groups. Ultimately, we could be heading towards a world where gluten-sensitive individuals can enjoy gluten-reduced wheat, or those with caffeine-sensitivity can rely on naturally decaffeinated coffee beans.
Speaking of genetics, nutrigenomics and personalized nutrition is another area that has been receiving much attention from food producers and biotechnology experts in the field. A deeper understanding of how genes and nutrients interact with one another to impact our health and well-being can be of immense help to millions of humans. Perhaps even more useful would be the development of personalized nutritional regimes based on individual genetic profiles. Although diets have become highly tailored to cater to subsets within the population, vastly contrasting results are observed among people who follow them. This could be solved with the help of something as simple as customized health supplements.
Food for the Planet: As far as food of the future is concerned sustainability is a common element present across all domains, and certainly a welcome change from what we have today. Countless years of neglect on the part of humans have put the planet and its inhabitants at risk, but the future holds some hope. An increasing number of individuals and organizations are actively working to implement better practices that are less damaging to the environment. For instance, many companies and consumers are beginning to shift towards eco-friendly packaging, recyclable ware and biodegradable options.
One such initiative was witnessed at the London Marathon held last April, where the marathon runners were handed out edible seaweed capsules filled with sports drink, in an effort to reduce single-use plastic bottles. The product, named Ooho was created in 2013 by a team of London-based engineering students, and is now set to gain global recognition. Ooho is designed in such a way that it naturally decomposes within four to six weeks, making it the perfect example of sustainable packaging.
Consumer Technology, AI and Robotics: We are now well-aware that food production in the future will be geared towards meeting the needs of individual consumers. This means that more and more food products would be custom-made, based not only on genetics and nutritional needs, but also on personal preference and lifestyle. Apart from the health aspect, producers are also starting to take into account other factors, making food consumption a truly exclusive experience.
You may have heard of an incredible creation by Chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck restaurant in UK dubbed “the sound of the sea”. This signature dish makes use of music (the sound of waves) to enhance the taste, making it a unique multi-sensory dining experience which allows the customer to fully appreciate the ingredients. Currently it may seem that sonic-enhanced food such as this caters to only a small group of people, but potentially, it has a much wider scope of application.
Going back to the health factor, there are already a variety of devices on the market such as the HAPIfork and other food sensors which enables consumers to have a better understanding about the food on their plates and their eating habits. The sensors in HAPIfork can measure the speed at which you are eating, thus letting you know when to slow down, so as to prevent digestive problems and overeating. Wireless food sensors or food scanners work in a similar way and detect which components are in our food, making life that much easier for those with food allergies.
Technological advancements would perhaps be most apparent within the kitchens of the future, with upcoming ultra-modern gadgets and equipment. Smart ovens with augmented reality applications can take efficiency in food preparation to a whole new level. For those who love to experiment in the kitchen and get creative, a 3D printer would offer priceless opportunities.
If there is one thing that food outlets of the future must do to keep customers happy in our fast-paced world, it would be to increase efficacy. Innovators in the industry have already found the answer: robotics and artificial intelligence. Workers in fast food outlets could easily be replaced with equally skilled robots, allowing companies to cut down on labor costs. Artificially intelligent assistants and chatbots could be programmed to provide better customer service. Autonomous delivery systems such as delivery robots and drones could cater to a growing customer base, while saving time and energy.
There has never been a more thrilling time in the history of food; with the amount of time and resources being invested in the industry, the future looks promising. On the other hand, given the rise in the number of people looking for alternate food sources, we can never predict which food trend will take the world by storm. However, one thing is for sure; the future certainly holds a lot of excitement for the adventurous foodie in all of us. From cleaner, greener solutions in the food industry to the extensive use of technology, not to mention all the peculiar types of foods, we are bound to witness some extraordinary feats.
Words by Sadha