The future of food is personalised wellness, driven by exponential technologies.
And it’s the opinions of ‘Generation Alpha’ that will shape what is to come, food futurist Tony Hunter told those who attended ConTech — the Ai Group Confectionery Sector’s premier annual event for the Australian confectionery industry.
The focus is on wellness, rather than nutrition.
“People won’t eat just for ‘fuel’ or taste but for their health,” Mr Hunter said.
“Wellness is what they want. They want to be emotionally well, cognitively well and physically well.”
To satisfy this consumer demand, manufacturers and retailers will need to embrace technology.
“You can’t talk about food from farm to fork without talking about technology,” Mr Hunter said.
“Technology is everywhere in food, a trend that has been gaining traction since about 2017.
“Now we’re approaching the intersection of five exponential technologies — driven by three accelerator technologies — that will determine the future of food for decades to come.”
These exponential technologies include:
The three accelerator technologies are AI, sensors and quantum computing.
One company, California Cultured, is already growing cacao plant cells to make the components for chocolate, Mr Hunter said.
“These cells can grow the full range of ingredients that go into chocolate, including mimicking cocoa nibs for grinding and making chocolate.”
Mammary gland agriculture is another example.
“You can take stem cells from milk and grow miniature mammary glands in stainless steel fermenters and grow milk without the mammal — including human milk,” Mr Hunter said.
Nutrigenomics, the science that studies the relationship between the human genome, nutrition and health, has huge potential, Mr Hunter said.
“You can have your DNA analysed and be told how you will react to certain foods, like how quickly you metabolise caffeine,” he said.
Nutrigenomics is also helping to personalise food choices for consumers.
British company DNAnudge has made a shopping app that analyses DNA from a cheek swab to help customers choose suitable groceries. Shoppers open the app and scan items with their smartphone to get a thumbs up or thumbs down notification.
The microbiome is the collection of microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses etc) that live on our bodies and inside us.
“Research in the microbiome has exploded in the past 10 to 20 years and we’re increasingly discovering how important the microbiome is to our health,” Mr Hunter said.
“The food we eat, dietary inflammation and our gut microbiome are all interconnected.
“This research is the most important advance in nutrition that we have seen in more than 100 years.”
As such, apps have already been developed by many companies to determine how food will impact consumers, based on their microbiome.
Synthetic biology, which often involves genetic modification (GM) — taking the genes from one organism and putting them into another — will be essential to our food system going forward, Mr Hunter said.
This process lets manufacturers do all sorts of things, even grow colours and flavours in plants.
“All the technologies within synthetic biology can be used in products like confectionery to give us advantages in producing what consumers want,” Mr Hunter said.
“Everyone talks about Gen Z, but if you’re looking to the future of food in the longer term — 2030-2050 — you should be thinking about the next generation: Gen Alpha, born 2010-2024,” Mr Hunter said.
“By the end of 2024, when the last of the Gen Alphas are born, there will be 2billion Gen Alphas on the planet – the single largest generation ever to be born.
“It’s their opinions that will determine the future of food.”
A recent study asked consumers if they would try a product made using technology.
Nearly 80 per cent of Gen Z said yes, 67 per cent of Gen Y said they would, and Boomers and Gen X tied at 58 per cent.
“If we extrapolated that, it would seem Gen Alphas are highly likely to accept some degree of technology in their food, more so than previous generations — particularly if you add sustainability and equitable food supply, which are concerns of Gen Alphas even at the age some of them are now — late single digits and early teens.”
Consumers already enjoy personalisation in their everyday lives. Streaming video channels, digital music services and supermarket specials all offer suggestions based on past purchases and choices.
The previously mentioned accelerator technologies will help people determine if their food choices actually enhance their personal wellness.
“Sensors are the answer,” Mr Hunter said.
“We’re going to have tattoos: semi-permanent and permanent tattoos that will detect all sorts of body metabolites,” he said.
“We’re going to be generating a huge amount of information which is where AI comes in, because without AI, we’re not going to be able to crunch all this data to make sense of what our food is doing to us and for us — in real time.”
A quantum computer will be needed to handle this data analysis.
“In the short term, that will be done through the Cloud or the latest generation of mobile network but later — I’m talking beyond 2040 — we may have our own quantum computers.
“We’ll be surrounded by an ‘AI shell’, which will look inwards to our body, to the sensors, to the way we’re reacting to our food and to the outside world — what’s in the product, what’s on the label and whether it’s good for us.
“People won’t have to read the label or nutritional data. The AI will communicate; it will know what’s good for you and it will tell you. It will feed back to us what foods are doing to and for our bodies.
“It’s not going to be the food police but you’re going to be informed. Whether you choose to accept that information is still going to be a personal choice.”
Manufacturers will be welcoming AI to their NPD (new product development) teams.
Mr Hunter spoke of NotCo, a Chilean food-tech company that already uses its Giuseppe AI to formulate its alternative protein products.
“It formulated plant-based milk and two of the ingredients it used to make it more dairy-like were cabbage and pineapple,” he said.
“Not many people would have thought of that.”
Mr Hunter also spoke of Swiss company Vivi Kola that turned to ChatGPT for a vegan formulation for a new health drink.
A list of ingredients was produced, and the result was impressive.
“Next, they needed a name,” Mr Hunter said.
“They wanted a four-letter word as the second part of the name.
“Chat GPT came up with Vivi Nova.
“They said the whole process took just two days, which is absolutely phenomenal.
“What I like to call ‘Chat-NPD’ is going to be the future of product development.”
Exploring the future is not a flight of fancy; it makes business sense.
“We explore the future so we can make the best possible decisions today,” Mr Hunter said.
“As business people, we know current decisions limit future actions.
“If you spend $100million on a new plant today, you’re not going to be able to spend that on something else later on.
“We explore alternative futures (different ways in which the future could eventuate), and extrapolate back to the present to make the best possible decisions to optimise the competitive advantage of our businesses today.
“We’re making proactive decisions, so the future happens for us, rather than reactive decisions and the future happens to us.
“There is so much going on.
“Technology is not going away.
“By 2030, the supermarket will contain products we’ve never seen before.”
ConTech is the key destination for confectionery technicians and provides an unparalleled opportunity to learn and network with industry participants.
The theme of ConTech2023 was Capture Creativity through Curiosity and the event was proudly sponsored by our Principal Sponsor, the Manildra Group; the Victorian Government Department of Jobs, Skills, Industry and Regions and others.
Click here to find out more about the Ai Group Confectionery Sector.
Wendy Larter is Ai Group's Communications Manager. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.