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Ideas

This is the future of food

From 3D printed pizza to robot delivery services, innovations that will shape how and what we eat

By Glenn McDonald

Whatever else we may disagree upon, across eras and cultures, we can count on one shared experience: eating. Food is good. But the world is changing fast. And the food of the future might look less like what you’d come across on an Anthony Bourdain road trip, and more like what you’d find in a science fair exhibition.

Here are some emerging trends and technologies likely to impact the experience of eating within the next few decades. Bon appétit!

3D-printed food
Natural Machines

Generally speaking, “extrude” isn’t the kind of word you’d want to associate with eating. But 3D printers are everywhere now — extruding unlikely items like 3D-printed musical instruments, cars, even body parts — so it’s perhaps no surprise that we’re entering the era of 3D-printed food.

Several hardware manufacturers and food companies now sell machines for extruding edible materials, layer by layer, that coagulate to approximate specific foodstuffs in shape, flavor, and texture. For instance, Barcelona-based Natural Machines markets a 3D printer called the Foodini. Using stainless steel capsules, users put in their own ingredients — typically liquidated via food processor — and the Foodini prints out different dishes according to a library of digital recipes: pizza, quiche, hash browns, pasta, burgers, cookies, what-have-you. The restaurant model currently sells for around $4,000, but the company is developing less expensive models for home use.

Kelp is the new kale
iStock

In recent years, forward-facing ecologists and farmers have been pushing hard to promote seaweed farming as an eco-friendly solution to a decidedly serious problem. No matter how we crunch the numbers, land-based agriculture will one day be unable to feed Earth’s rapidly swelling population. We will need to return to the sea.

Devotees of Japanese and Korean cuisine will already be familiar with the delights of seaweed; the cultivation of ocean plants as a food source dates back to the 8th century in Asia. Kelp farming has a long history in Ireland and Iceland, too. Now, seaweed is serious business and the industry is growing fast. Farmers are harvesting 8 million tons of seaweed per year, according the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, with total global value at around $5 billion annually.

Independent kelp and seaweed farms are proliferating rapidly in the U.S., selling mostly to health food stores. And global non-profits like GreenWave are dedicated to teaching both farmers and fishermen how to produce high crop yields with virtually no carbon footprint. According to GreenWave, anyone with 20 acres and a boat can be up and running in a year.

Spherify your food
Spherificator

If we’re going to be eating a lot of seaweed in the future, we’ll want to explore some different texture and flavor options. Enter the Spherificator, one of the most intriguing advances in consumer technology to hit the foodie community in recent years. The concept: Turn all your food into tiny, edible, space-age spheres.

Spherification has actually been around for a while, as both a molecular gastronomy trick and an industrial food prep process. For several years, a small company in Quebec called Imperial Caviar & Seafood has been making a vegetarian caviar substitute called Kelp Caviar, turning seaweed into “pearls” — tiny liquid-filled gel balls. (Interested chemists will note that the technology is based on an old trick using calcium and alginate.)

Imperial recently brought the process to the consumer market when it developed a handheld device for the kitchen. It’s not just for seaweed, either. The machine can turn just about any edible substance — fruits, vegetables, proteins — into easily digestible future-food pellets. Just the sort of staple item you’ll want for your survival bunker in the floating city of New Atlanta.

Food replacement products

In the 1973 science fiction movie Soylent Green, pollution and overpopulation have left Americans dependent on food rations and a protein-rich meal substitute provided by the shady Soylent Corporation. Things get interesting.

From there, the Soylent name had nowhere to go but up. It did in 2013, when the California-based company now called Rosa Labs began marketing “Soylent” as a liquid meal-replacement product that promises to provide 400 calories per serving: all the daily vitamins and minerals your body needs, plant-based proteins and, if you like, bonus caffeine. Soylent can be purchased online or in stores — you can get it at Wal-Mart now — and comes in individual bottles or in packets of “powdered food.”

Meal replacement products are nothing new, of course. They’ve been regulated by the FDA since the 1960s. But the popularity of the Soylent line and its competitors suggests that such products will continue to find a market in the go-go 21st century. One last note: Rosa Labs representatives assure us that the protein in their products come exclusively from plants, unlike the rather unsettling protein source in the movie.

Mobile markets

The business of food shopping has changed radically in the last couple of decades. With advances in online purchasing, shopping will only get more convenient in the coming years. For one thing, you won’t have to go to the store anymore. Instead, the store will come to you.

The Swiss company Wheelys is currently working with partners in China and elsewhere to deploy the Moby Mart, a mobile retail store that can drive itself around and be summoned, like an Uber, with a tap on your phone. If you’re subscribed to the Moby Mart service, you can whistle up a Mart, grab your purchases off the shelf, then pay with a phone app. No employees. No cash. No problem.

And the Moby Mart isn’t just a space-age concept. A prototype Moby Mart has been prowling the bustling streets of Shanghai for more than a year, combining recent advances in digital payment systems, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and solar power.

According to Wheelys spokesperson Per Cromwell, Moby Marts will eventually sell all sorts of things, but the initial wave is focused on corner-store type staples. “First we will aim at products for immediate consumption, like ready-made food, groceries, and coffee,” Cromwell says.

Gastronomical robotics

Everyone’s talking about the impending robot revolution, and food service is considered one of the industries most vulnerable to automation. In the fast food business, robots are now involved in making everything from burgers to pizza to sushi. And lately, food companies are developing entire restaurant models where humans need not apply at all. The Japanese hotel and restaurant Henn-Na, outside Nagasaki, uses robotic chefs, robotic servers, and robotic bartenders — a little gimmicky, to be sure, but pointing the way to the future.

Artificial intelligence is getting into the food business as well, developing recipes, powering vending kiosks, even directly preparing our food. And expect robots to continue their infiltration of the home kitchen: Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo are already dispensing recipes via voice command, while companies like Chewbotics are developing the next wave of food service robots that will eventually migrate to your countertop — like Sally, the Salad Bot.

The dark side

For a darker vision of the future of eating, consider artist Allie Wist, a New York University professor who specializes in visual narratives about food culture and ecological concerns. Her photo essay Flooded, which recently appeared at the Visions of the Future exhibition in Hawaii, imagines the kind of food we might be eating soon if we don’t reverse global ecological degradation. Like a dark reflection of those endless online foodie photos, the Flooded images show plates full of gray shellfish, dubious-looking sea greens, and chunks of mushrooms and fungus.

A second photo essay, called Drought, is currently in the works. If the images are disturbing, that’s entirely on purpose. “The series aims to inspire people to become better acquainted with their natural landscape and how to source food from it,” Wist says. Climate change is going to be the challenge of our lifetime. And one thing we have to consider is how climate change is going to impact our food system.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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