WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tooth sensors that measure sugar and alcohol intake and ingestible health monitors could shape the future of the food industry, a top food futures researcher told the crowd at the Food Innovation Summit Friday.
Max Elder, a researcher at the Institute for the Future's Food Futures Lab, said that as more technology is developed to help consumers understand what they are eating, challenges in the food industry will continue to grow — and the industry needs to get ahead of them now.
From new technologies detecting specific ingredients and allergens in food to the expansion of cell-cultured meat, Elder said in some ways, "the future is already here." He said that if CPGs want to prepare for future obstacles now then they will need to "work backwards" to strategize steps they can take to create the industry they want.
"We do not sit in our little think tank in Palo Alto and look at our crystal balls and make some statement that in 10 years X will happen," he said. "Instead, what we can do is identify preferred futures so we can think about what we want the future to look like."
Food technology of tomorrow
Eaters can no longer rely on their five senses to get accurate information about food, Elder said. He argued that many of today's packaged foods are filled with empty calories and that shoppers are confused about product labeling.
A recent study by the Center for Food Integrity also found that only 33% of survey respondents "strongly agree" that they are confident in the safety of the food they consume. Because of this distrust, a new suite of technologies has been developed to help consumers make better-informed decisions about their food, Elder said. He said these "radical" devices will likely be widespread over the next decade.
For example, a lab at Carnegie Mellon University is working to develop an ingestible sensor that would monitor gastrointestinal health. "This is not necessarily a crazy idea that we would have sensors inside our guts at all times," he said.
There are other sensors that don't need to be inside your stomach. Tufts University has created a tooth sensor, which is two millimeters by two millimeters, that can measure glucose, sugar and alcohol intake, he said.
But before sensors in guts or on teeth become ubiquitous, Elder said they will likely be outside the body. For example, Baidu, a Chinese search engine plant, developed smart chopsticks that can detect the freshness of cooking oil.
"Smart chopsticks, smart utensils are growing in their scale and scope and can easily probably be the utensils that we all use today... in just a few years," he said.
Although the food knowledge consumer can gain from this new technology could pose a challenge to food companies, Elder said it is also an opportunity for brands to get more information on what eaters want and leverage that data to better communicate with them.
Another device that is changing the industry is Nima, a portable sensor that tests for trace amounts of gluten when users put crumbs of food in the small machine. He said Nima is developing the same technology for other allergens, including peanuts and shellfish, and that this type of sensor will be able to test for many other ingredients over the next 10 years.
"This will change the types of information that consumers will have at their fingertips — literally maybe in their fingertips — about the food that they're consuming,” he said.
"This will change the types of information that consumers will have at their fingertips — literally maybe in their fingertips — about the food that they're consuming."
Researcher at the Institute for the Future's Food Futures Lab
More sustainable and humane products
The lab-grown meat industry has the potential to be more widespread, though it has faced regulatory setbacks this year. But Elder said there is a rapidly growing movement toward exploring more cellular food systems, and that this category will be part of the future of the industry.
"It's almost silly how much money is being pumped into these companies right now," he said. "This is clearly a massive new form of food production for the future, whether we like it or not."
Elder, who mentioned the impact of cell-cultured meat players Memphis Meats and JUST, said he "can no longer keep up with how many companies are moving into this space."
There will also be a push to cater to shoppers' environmental values over the next few decades, a strategy Elder said companies should approach with caution. He pointed to Perfect Day, a company that creates milk without cows using a yeast-based protein platform, as a potential cautionary tale.
The company had marketed that compared to traditional dairies, it used 91% less land and 90% less water, Elder said, but when he visited their website last week those numbers were gone. While the company hasn't stated the reason for this change, Elder says this could be a signal that the industry doesn't fully understand the environmental impact of new types of food production, and should be careful in making claims it may not be able to hold up.
"We should be very, very, very concerned and very vigilant about the ways in which these emerging foods are talked about and actually analyze what the real impact is, because consumers will want to know and consumers are tracking this, and if it turns out that in 10 years none of this is true, a lot of trust is lost," he said.