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How Big Data Will Change the Way You Eat

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IBM employees discuss the next iteration of Watson, an application that would allow developers to make cloud-based apps.

Big Data took a hard right hook in the PR street fight when it was burdened with the word “big,” associating it with the likes of Big Tobacco and Big Brother.

It doesn’t help that the sinister-sounding ‘Quantified Self’ is the best-known phrase for improving individual lives through data tracking. And one of the most personal of human activities, eating, is the billion-dollar bullseye of the Quantified Self.

The food industry is one of the most sophisticated data users, employing some of the most personal information—what we eat—for marketing. When you use a loyalty card at a grocery store, or save a recipe on some websites, or email a recipe to a friend, information is processed so companies can target advertising and make money off of you. Although this sounds striking at first, really did anyone think that Google, a public company that is one of the largest by market value, was providing free email accounts as a public service?

If companies can harness the stallion that is data, and enjoy the ride very much, individuals should be interested in aggregating the same information to improve our own lives rather than just companies’ bottom lines. With wearable technology on the rise, personal data is getting easier to track. ‘Quantify’ the self—know your precise, undeniable, and scientific numbers through tracking calories, blood sugar, vitamin levels—and total quality of health will be revealed.

Through the internet of things, we can manage the dizzying amount of data we produce each day. No time to stop at the store, so what’s in my refrigerator to make dinner tonight? In a simple example, an app could aggregate the data of all food purchases on my credit card, then offer an inventory of my fridge and pantry, then connect with websites to check the types of recipes I download (vegetarian, Greek, dairy-free) to suggest recipes for dinner based on what’s on hand. My dinner information will then be logged in my food tracker.

Data has to be aggregated to be useful; otherwise it’s just a mess of information. But individuals must rely on companies to aggregate data for them.

Enter the data scientists. As the internet spawned the profession of webmaster in the 1990s, food companies in the 2010s are hiring data scientists to monitor customer behavior patterns to create more popular new products. Entire consulting businesses are devoted to “Big Data for the food industry.” One company wrote that “capturing every variable that a person would potentially use to make a decision” will help companies work more efficiently…. (I would argue that appetites are less rational than this.)

Most want to use data to make life better, but fear that using data inevitably sends society down the privacy rabbit hole. In the White House’s Big Data and Privacy Review released earlier this year, 80 percent of respondents said that they were “very much concerned” about transparency about data use. Privacy concerns go hand-in-hand with Big Data and no matter how many times we hear that no one is interested in reading our specific email or that companies are more interested in our trends than individuals, knowing that someone in Data Land—ex-boyfriend? kidnapper?—could reconstruct our lives with a few keystrokes is creepy.

Employers want to monitor individuals’ food intake too. According to Politico, employer monitoring of behavioral data (such as what people eat) through wearable technologies like Fitbits is a developing trend. Spurred in part by the Affordable Care Act, which incentivizes companies to offer wellness programs for employees, food monitoring could be exactly the kickstart you need to eat better. Or food monitoring could be a federally subsidized road for employers to ‘request’ an unethical amount of information from employees that is more of an ‘offer you can’t refuse.’

There’s more money in technology than ethics, but can we at least try to keep up?

As the intersection of food and health becomes closer, the discussion really will get interesting because the use of medical data has its own ethics code. Entire philosophy courses are developed around when personally identifiable information can be used in studies. Data ethics can develop alongside data science. Perhaps companies should put some cash into data ethicists as well as data scientists.

Of course, curbing a company’s use of data curbs profits also. But the questions are only getting more vexing. Smart food companies will start investing in consumer trust now.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.