Future of Food, Part I: Food Innovations of Tomorrow

First in an occasional series.

When looking ahead to the foods of tomorrow, most Americans are excited about the idea of futuristic food technologies. According to the IFIC Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, excitement is highest in the younger cohorts, specifically Millennials.

When asked about futuristic foods, significantly more Millennials (89 percent) responded that they would be excited about an appliance that can turn raw ingredients into any meal, compared to the general population (80 percent). Similarly, more Millennials (79 percent) are interested in the creation of a 3D printer that can make any food from scratch compared to the general population (69 percent).

With all this interest in food technology, it can be difficult to keep up with the specifics of the technology and understand how this technology can be applied. This multipart series will delve into a variety of technologies, with this first article briefly introducing several of these topics.

Make sure to be on the lookout for upcoming articles that will explore futuristic food horizons related to petri dish protein, 3D printing, DNA modification, data-driven developments, and culinary tech-based innovations. In honor of a catchy 1968 Steppenwolf hit, the lyric “you don't know what we can see” really applies to future technologies in food, so let’s dive into up-and-coming food innovations.

“Meat” the Petri-Dish Protein

This technology splashed onto the scene recently with the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. This burger also came with a hefty price tag: The cost of the patty was about $325,000! Recent advancements have brought the cost down significantly to about $40 a pound, which is still about 10 times as high as conventionally grown beef.

The process of making petri-dish protein for human consumption is quite involved. First, stem cells from a cow, usually from its shoulder, are harvested. It’s important that stem cells are collected, as these cells are able to give rise to different types of cells.

The stem cells then “hit the spa.” They are placed in a warm, nutrient-rich liquid, where they have the time and space to divide and multiply. After some time, the cells merge together and structurally arrange themselves into small fibers. These fibers are then grown around a cylinder, to form a ring of tissue. The tissue then forms strands, which are layered together to produce a final product, such as a burger patty.  

This technology is not stopping at beef. Other companies are expanding it to include chicken and pork. However, before this technology takes flight, there are a few important details such as cost and nutritional profile that still need to be addressed.

Taking Food to Another Dimension with 3D Printing

It’s a logical step to move to 3D printing after covering petri-dish proteins. 3D printing can take some of the technologies developed from lab meats to develop a full meal or dish. Also known as “additive manufacturing,” the technology of 3D printing is pretty similar to ink jet printing. While the technology was developed in the late 1970s, many of its applications dealt with plastics, metals, resins, or other materials. However, recent advancements have now allowed for this technology to include food.

In food applications, a cartridge containing the raw materials is inserted into the 3D printer. A laser source is directed to the cartridge to heat and ready the material for layering and forming. Then the material is deposited in layers to form a 3D object.

Similar to petri-dish proteins, there are many advantages to 3D printing, such as the ability to control ingredients and nutritional profile. Also, 3D printers may be used to promote portion control, as the food can be designed based on specific calorie or portion parameters. Additionally, 3D printing is able to make ingredients or foods that may be off-putting to some, such as insects or algae, and transform them into an appetizing final product.

Currently, there are a few setbacks to this technology including cost, speed, and the use of certain raw materials. But so far many foods involving chocolate, dough, and sugar have been mastered.

Alterations to the Genetic Code

Up to this point, we have covered topics that are larger than the cellular level; however, there are new food technology advancements that delve into the cell’s core (beyond genetic engineering), targeting DNA to result in profound and innovative developments.

An emerging science called synthetic biology, or “synbio,” involves designing and inserting biological structures into intermediaries such as algae, bacteria, or yeast to produce useful ingredients from inexpensive and sustainable elements. Synbio has been slowing entering the food market with the entry of synbio vanillin in the summer of 2014.

Additionally, manufacturers are researching ways to create synbio resveratrol, an antioxidant found in peanuts, grapes, and cocoa powder, and stevia leaf extract, a plant-derived sweetener and sugar substitute. Others are interested in harnessing the power of yeast to make cow, goat, and buffalo milk. 

Identified in the early 2000s, CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) technologies involve genome editing, aka changing the genetic code. CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which basically means a defined, repetitious sequence of the genetic code. Due to the specific sequence, this stretch of the genetic code can be recognized and removed, allowing for targeted genome editing.

On the other side, desirable traits can be added through this technology. There are many food applications such as identifying and tracking potential pathogens in food, protecting starter cultures in the dairy industry, and genetic editing to improve crops and livestock.

Both synbio and CRISPR offer targeted solutions to enhance production, quality, and safety in the food supply.

Data-Driven Developments

It’s no surprise that data-driven technologies are in the future for food, because data seems to be the currency of the future. Apps and tools will help fill consumer needs and questions.

Wondering what’s in the food you eat? There’s a tool in development designed to scan foods, identify calories, macronutrients, allergens, fiber, etc. in one simple scan. Want to keep track of the freshness of your food? There’s a “smart jar” that will keep track, notify you, and sync to online stores to order more of that product. It will also keep track of some basic nutrition information about the food. Don’t feel confident in your cooking skills? There’s a smart thermometer that can help you plan and keep track of cooking various ingredients like meat, stews, sauces, and candy.

Food deliveries will also be part of the future as same-day delivery services grow in popularity. Roughly 30 percent of consumers have ordered food items online for same-day delivery, excluding foods like pizza.

The field has seen exponential growth in recent years: Sales from online grocery services in 2014 grew nearly a quarter over 2013. These services will evolve and offer new value to their consumers through insights gleaned through data science, such as being able to offer or suggest products based on purchasing history, alert consumers when products run low, and learn about consumer purchasing decisions.

While exciting, some of these developments may not come to full fruition or need more time until the big reveal. Until then, there are plenty of ways that data can influence the future of food.

Gearing Up with Gastronomic Advancements

Finally, we arrive at the world of gastronomy. The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in the late 1980s and has become quite mainstream on cooking shows. Specific techniques, tools, and ingredients define this type of cooking and can include a devices that are used in the biomedical research world, such as dehydrators, centrifuges, and syringes.  Some seem straight out of a science fiction book: The “anti-griddle” freezes foods to -30 degrees F.

Non-traditional ingredients or components are hallmarks of this food movement. Liquid nitrogen is used for flash freezing or creating a smoky effect; maltodextrin transforms liquids into powders; lecithin and hydrocolloids such as pectin and gums are critical for thickening and emulsifying; and transglutaminase is important for binding together proteins. These advancements in foods have injected more whimsy and fun into food, making dishes and ingredients come together in more creative and artful ways. 

The future for food includes many exciting and impactful technologies. Although these innovations were briefly summarized, it should not detract from the true impact that some, if not all, of these technologies will have. In the words of the great fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett, “It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it works.”

Rather, this magic will continue to unfold as more and more of these innovations become incorporated into routine food production, manufacturing, and preparation.