How can nature’s variety be commoditized and rendered uniform?

Apr 23, 2019 | General

This article raises so many questions about the future of food – here are some excerpts that struck me, read the full article here 

How should food be made to taste? This question has vexed manufacturers since the earliest days of factory-made foods, when industrial processing created new challenges—and new possibilities—for flavor. The unprecedented ability to manipulate raw ingredients raised two connected conundrums, both still top-of-mind for the industry today. The first has to do with consistency. No grain of wheat, no cocoa bean, is identical—yet each Oreo that tumbles off the production line must be, as far as possible, indistinguishable from the next. How can nature’s variety be commoditized and rendered uniform, with sensory experience that’s guaranteed? Second, there is the problem of deliciousness. What makes one crème-filled cookie preferable to another crème-filled cookie? How can pleasure be measured?

Sensory science – It’s what ensures the uncanny consistency of Budweiser from can to can, calculates the ideal crunch of a Pringle, and determines the optimal cheesiness for a Ritz cracker….

Gastrograph AI – Essentially, A.I. describes any system that utilizes machine learning — computational algorithms, including neural networks and natural language processing — to churn meaning from aggregations of data, finding patterns, making predictions, and, crucially, displaying the capacity for self-improvement. Whether filtering spam, identifying potential new drugs, or recommending the next show to binge-watch, AI-based systems decrease their error rate over time. They get better at giving us what we seem to want….

Ultimately, what Analytic Flavor Systems is selling is not a food or beverage: It is a descriptive picture of experience, a predictive image of desire, and a vision of a food system fragmented into niches of highly attached consumers. If the future is, as its founders say, in foods optimized to our most personal appetites, the company’s success will ultimately depend on the Gastrograph’s ability to tell food and beverage companies what you will love, the flavors that you won’t be able to live without—and to do this more accurately, efficiently, or cost-effectively than established companies….

I noticed that almost everyone who spoke to me about the virtues of personalized food made sure to also genuflect toward personalized nutrition—foods tailored to our peculiar metabolic needs or allergen sensitivities. Not only better tasting; also better for you! I also wonder about the presumption of universality implied by this promise of personalization. Who will get to enjoy the benefits of custom-tailored foods, and who will be left eating undifferentiated potato chips, non-specific TV dinners?