CAN TECHNOLOGY ACTUALLY CHANGE OUR FOOD SYSTEMS?
It’s an unavoidable fact that the future of our food systems will involve technology. We are surrounded by headlines about how our eating has gone tech—from 3D-printed pizza to lab-grown meat to ever-more flamboyant artificial flavors and eating experiences (think: rainbow bagels). With a swell of new technologies on the horizon, will any of them actually change our relationships with food for the better? Many will be relegated to the realm of passing fads, the one-hit wonders of gastronomy. Others, however, will lead the way to a future food system that is rooted in both ethics and sustainability. Here are some of the most promising recent applications.
If you’re familiar with blockchain technology, you’re probably thinking, “but what does Bitcoin have to do with my dinner?” While most commonly associated with the enigmatic cryptocurrency Bitcoin, its first major application, blockchain is a much wider type of technology that be utilized in the medical industry, in elections, and in keeping tabs on our food. The basic premise behind blockchain is that it creates a secure, uneditable record of transactions, which verifies the validity and source of something. With the heightened concern about where our food comes from, blockchain could be a powerful tool in our farms, grocery stores, and restaurants. By creating a verifiable record of each step along a food’s sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution, the blockchain of food could lend validation to the concept of “farm to table” and substantially reduce illegitimate or mislabeled food fraud. (Food fraud currently costs the global economy a staggering 40 billion dollars annually.) Blockchain-supported verifiability is especially profound for the seafood industry, where mislabeling and deception run rampant. In our current crisis of overexploited fisheries and precarious ocean ecosystems, it is more essential than ever that we know where our seafood is coming from.
Blockchain could also help curtail dangerous foodborne bacteria outbreaks, like the recent McDonald's salad food poisonings and the salmonella-related Goldfish recall. With detailed information about an offending food’s distribution, grocery stores and restaurants could be rapidly alerted of outbreaks, and pull dangerous foods from the shelves quickly and efficiently. Blockchain could eventually impact consumers even more directly; imagine a not-so-distant future in which a shopper can scan a barcode on a package in a grocery store and immediately access information about its origin, sustainability, or nutrition. Is that bluefin tuna actually bluefin tuna? (A recent study in Brussels showed an astonishing 98% of tuna labeled as bluefin was not.) Barcodes or QR codes on foods in both grocery stores and at restaurants could give us a powerful tool in verifying what we’re eating.
3D Printed Food
The novelty of 3D-printed food is hard to resist. 3D-printed pizza is the obvious crowd favorite, but in all honesty, it’s hard to figure out the advantage of using a robot to assemble something as simple as, well, pizza. Furthermore, considering our country’s obesity crisis, should we really be making it even easier to eat more pizza? 3D-printed foods originated, for the most part, with sugar-heavy confections. Since 3D printing works by putting down layers of material (in this case, edible material) to create a shape predetermined by an uploaded design, substances like sugar and gelatin made for good printing substances. The resulting printed objects ended up not that different from processed food, albeit more intricate and customized.
Some companies, like Foodini, are now attempting to develop fresh ingredient-based applications (for both commercial and consumer kitchens), eschewing additives and stabilizers. However, even so-called “fresh” 3D-printed foods still beg the question: Will this technology actually move the needle on any of today’s most pressing health and environmental challenges? 3D food printers are not affordable for most consumers, rendering their potential convenience inaccessible to most home chefs. Moreover, they further remove consumers from the source of their food and from any skills in home cooking and meal preparation.
With that said, there are a few niche applications where 3D printing may prove beneficial down the road, given ample funding and dedication. For example, it could be useful for elderly or disabled individuals that can no longer make food for themselves, or for the small subset of people with swallowing disorders who require specific food textures. The most viable niche application out there has to do with repurposing food waste into a printable material. AgriDust has started turning compost-type food waste into a printable material to make containers for plants, foods, and other short-use packages. The impact is succinct and direct, making it one of the most promising 3D-printing innovations.