I have seen the future of food, and it needs a charger.
Last month at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, a group that promotes turning technology and science into food-system solutions, a market research company discussed the top food trends for new product development in the food industry. Leading the list: clean labels, simpler pleasures, and innovations by small craft manufacturers.
If such wholesome objectives sound incompatible with technology, think again. Take the last trend. The Beatles-like popularity of artisanal food producers these days is made possible only through the generous support of the internet and social media. How else could my sister’s Brooklyn-caramel evangelism translate into sales and devotees for the tiny company that a decade ago would have sold only out of its hole-in-the-wall shop? It’s no coincidence that the most recent local-food movement and the internet sprouted up together.
Consider also simpler pleasures, which alludes to eaters’ increased desire to cook at home. ‘Home-cooking technology’ usually refers to the sites that put more recipes at our fingertips in one search than our grandmothers saw in a lifetime. (Really, 662,000 recipes for home cooking with a white truffle, which costs thousands per pound? If you don’t know what to do with it, please give it to someone who does.)
But recently the demand for smart appliances, greatly increased by our ability to automate the management of their dizzying amount of information about our lives through our phones and the internet of things, has created a new wave of kitchen technology.
GE piled on the mind-blowing train last week, announcing technology for a microwave that measures total calories in food while it cooks. The company’s primary invention is not the microwave, of course, but a calorie-counting food scanner much like a handheld version currently in development. GE is considering installing the scanner in a microwave to create a more integrated and information-rich kitchen system. The microwave sends the information to your phone, which also sends it to your fridge, which perhaps locks when you’ve gone over a certain amount of calories for the day. (But imagine the angry letters to Stouffers when Lean Cuisines measure 312 calories rather than 275. Oy.)
Increased desire to reduce food waste was another predicted trend in food product development. Addressing waste is built into the food business world, with notoriously slim food services profit margins. But the issue has also enjoyed a recent resurgence in prominence from the nose-to-tail butchery renaissance (with cuts such as tongue and organ meats rising in popularity) and naming food sustainability directors like Elizabeth Meltz of Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. Meltz is using cloud-based analytics platforms at some of her restaurants to analyze and improve food waste, one hooked up to a scale to weigh pre-consumer food waste and one to analyze trash at the end of service.
To feed a planet of 9 billion by 2050 with changing dietary demands, Meltz logically, but still shockingly, notes, “because of food waste, doubling the food supply will actually require tripling production from fewer resources.”
My top food technology trend is its intersection with the gift economy. Many are viewing food less as an industry and more as a community. Food Cowboy is an app that links food banks with businesses that have leftover produce—the nonprofit organizations swing by and pick up the food, and the business is gratified that its leftover broccoli put to good use. The app Ripe Near Me allows small growers (backyard gardeners with one lemon tree welcome) to give away or sell their extra produce—zucchini season is coming up, people. Bartering, swapping, and other alternative payment arrangements are probably not far behind (albeit slower to develop, as venture capital for the gift and bartering economy is hard to come by).
A bridge too far in the gift economy: food sharing apps to give away leftovers. Post a picture of what’s in your fridge and someone can take or, ugh, buy it. Forcing users to undergo criminal background checks before sharing is counterproductive, as some of the best chefs and line cooks I know have records longer than their tattooed arms. But the real dealbreaker is, any app that warns the person who feeds me, “Don’t give away any food that you wouldn’t eat yourself” gets the delete button.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.