It was the Three-Course Dinner Gum that served as Violet Beauregarde’s downfall at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and also introduced multiple generations to the curious possibilities of food’s future. Now, more than fifty years’ since the publication of the Roald Dahl classic, we’re on the brink of innovations that might make twentieth-century fiction look more like a forecasting engine. As the way we cook, eat and interact with our food is evolving, what does the future eating look like?
Let’s start in the kitchen
Many an embroidered wall-hanging will tell you that the kitchen is the heart of the home. Today, that heart holds many possibilities for innovation, some of which are already in play. There are a growing number of smart refrigerators on the market, offering touch-screen, wi-fi enabled doors—yes, you can watch cat videos but you can also view how many eggs you have stocked while you’re at the market.
Similarly, wi-fi oven ranges are making it possible to adjust oven temperatures from afar and check if you left your burners on after you left the house. The connectivity plays out in a few different ways; some appliances will connect to your smartphone, but many are hooking up with smart home systems or digital assistants (see Whirlpool and Nest and GE and Alexa) and yet others plug into their own smart home systems (see Samsung’s Smartthings Hub).
But if you’re not ready to invest in new built-in appliances, there are other entry points to smarter cooking. Cuciniale, for example, promises to deliver perfectly cooked meats by connecting your steak to your smartphone through its multisensor probe. June Intelligent Oven also works with sensors to improve timing and preparation, but can also recognize what food it’s cooking.
These (as well as the bigger appliances) have the appeal of ease and convenience and may also elevate our cooking skills much in the same way digital has improved our photography. (Think of “seared” as a filter you can simply tap to apply to your tuna.)
Those holding out for a fully hands-off solution might find projects like UK startup Moley Robotics’ robotic kitchen of interest. Moley offers a pair of wall-embedded arms that can prepare and cook your meals. (No indication if it also does dishes.) Meanwhile, thanks to artificial intelligence, robots are learning how to cook the same way many humans are picking up tips: through Youtube. It’s all quite compelling, though, for now at least, it’s still more convenient to just order a pizza.
What about the actual food?
A more savory aspect of the future of food is, naturally, the food itself. One fairly easy trend to identify is the move toward a more health-conscious eating—there are plenty of studies to support this but you really only need to see that McDonald’s sells apple slices for confirmation. Technology is ready to enable this trend, with apps that offer calorie counts on pictures of food and devices like Nima that scan food for gluten and other allergens.
In a way that mirrors the fragmenting of media experiences, we’re also moving toward an era of more customized meals. That’s not simply Ethan-won’t-eat-zucchini-so-make-him-a-hot-dog-customization, but rather food that is developed to mirror our specific preferences, adjust to allergies and even address specific nutritional deficiencies. Success here relies on access to dietary insights, be it through logged historical eating patterns, blood levels and/or gut microbiome data. (New York Magazine has an interesting piece on the use of microbiome data to create your own personal food algorithm.)
And while it’s easy to imagine more personalized diets at home, we can count on technology to support that same customized approach while we’re eating out. Increasingly restaurants like Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Buffalo Wild Wings are introducing the table side tablet to increase efficiency and accuracy in orders and payments. As restaurant-goers take more control in how food is ordered, it will be easy to expect more customization in what is ordered.
Are we redefining food?
Given the rise of allergies and food intolerance, it’s not difficult to imagine a world of highly-customized eating. More unexpected in the evolution of eating is the work being done in neurogastronomy. This is a field that is approaching flavor from a neural level—actually rewiring the brain to change our perception of taste. In other words, neurogastronomy could make a rice cake register as delicious as ice cream cake. By fundamentally changing the types of food from which we derive pleasure, neurogastronomy could essentially trick us into healthier eating.
Then there is the emerging camp that eschews eating in favor of more efficient food alternatives. Products like provocatively-named Soylent and the much-humbler-sounding Schmilk offer a minimalist approach to nutrition (underscored by minimalist packaging), sort of like Marie Kondo for your diet. While this level of efficiency may have appeal in today’s cult of busy-ness, there something bittersweet about stripping food to the bare nutritional essentials, like eliminating the art of conversation in favor of plain, cold communication.
Another entry from the takes-some-time-to-get-used-to department comes from a team of Danish researchers. With the goal of addressing the costly challenge of food storage in space, CosmoCrops is working on a way to 3D-print food. There are already a number of products available that offer 3D-printed food (check out this Business Insider article for some cool food sculptures), but CosmoCrops is unique in its aim to reduce storage needs by printing food from bacteria. To that end, they are developing a ‘super-bacterium’ that can survive in space. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Where is the opportunity?
It’s probably too soon to tell if we’ll be more likely to nosh on bacteria burgers or pop nutritional powder pills come 2050. What is easier to digest today is the fact that connectivity is coming to eating. For the home kitchen, it won’t happen immediately—the turnover for built-in appliances isn’t as quick as, say, televisions and costs are still high. This means there’s still time for the contenders, both the appliance builders and the smart technology providers, to figure out which features will tip the kitchen in their favor.
From a dietary perspective, there is an opportunity in bridging the gap between our diet and technology. Restaurants will want to explore how to use technology to support more customized food preferences, but the broader question may be what will make it possible—and acceptable, in terms of privacy—to analyze personal data in order to develop meals that align with our unique food preferences as well as our specific nutritional needs? Maybe it’s a wearable that links your gut bacteria to ingredients stocked in the fridge, a toothbrush that reads your saliva, or (to really close the loop) the diagnostic toilet.
With innovation happening on many tracks, the possibilities for our future cooking and eating are both broad and captivating. What will lunch look like in next fifty, twenty, or even ten years? To borrow from Willy Wonka (who actually borrowed from Oscar Wilde): “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”