Fizzy milk or crunchy cheese? What we can expect from the food of the future
Food scientists are battling to overcome dairy and carbs’ image problem – but will mealworms and 3D-printed pasta really win consumers back?
Scientists are trying to find ways to get young people to drink more milk, including inventing a ‘fizzy milk’ in the lab at Arla in Denmark. Photograph: Getty Images
A man in skinny jeans and a bow tie is standing by a whiteboard with various buzzwords written on it: empathy, respect, create. He is leading a corporate bonding day for about 20 workers in an airy atrium, and moves over to start playing Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer on a keyboard, imploring staff to dance. “Come on, don’t be shy! We need to get the energy going! Grab your partner’s hand.”
I am just outside Aarhus in Denmark, in the new innovation centre of one of Denmark’s oldest food companies: Arla, a dairy cooperative, which started life in the 1880s. The centre, which opened in May this year, aims to have more in common with Legoland – just an hour away in Billund – than with a traditional office. A stream runs through the building, which is almost entirely glass-walled, allowing you to peer into various meeting rooms, laboratories and a dairy-processing plant to one side of the building. Here, close to 5km of pipe runs along the walls above men wearing hairnets, who are sticking a probe into a large block of cheese. A large sign painted on to the wall in English reads: “Arla’s Innovative Playground.”
Matt Walker, 38, is the senior director of innovation and research here. Snappily dressed in blue suede shoes, he commutes to Denmark from Harrogate, Yorkshire, and is one of many international workers at Arla. He shows me around, explaining why this plant is different from a standard dairy-processing plant, which usually specialises in either milk or cheese, not both. This place, he says, has enough modern kit to make almost anything you can think up from dairy. “I hate to talk about boys and their toys,” Walker says, “but the flexibility to play about with different formats is fantastic. It’s Legoland for dairy technicians.” A poster on a meeting room wall quotes Abraham Lincoln: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Downstairs, the man leading the team-bonding day turns up the volume and segues into Queen’s We Are The Champions. The staff, who have flown in from China, Germany, Dubai and elsewhere for an annual get-together, laugh nervously and start to dance.
Over the last five years, western diets have changed rapidly, as consumers increasingly embrace gluten-free, dairy-free and meat-free food. Many are ditching carbohydrates in favour of plant-based protein in the belief that it is better not just for themselves, but for the environment. “There is a booming interest in healthy living,” says Emma Clifford, food analyst at the market research firm Mintel. “Diets and trends always change, but social media has rapidly accelerated that change.” The rise of so-called “clean eating” on Instagram has rendered many staple foods unpopular, she says. “Refined carbohydrates have really fallen out of favour, and protein, particularly plant protein, has this magic halo about it.”
It’s a shift that has left some of the big, legacy food companies in crisis. According to Mintel, the percentage of Britons who say they eat sliced bread on a daily basis fell from 47% in 2014 to 34% last year, a dramatic drop for something that used to be a staple. Sales of bacon, sausages and canned meat all fell by more than 5% in 2016, and Dairy UK, the industry body for milk processors and farmers, said it was facing a “demographic timebomb”, because people under the age of 35 drink significantly less milk than those over 55.
If you are a big food company, selling mostly milk or mostly pasta, how do you adapt? Is there a reliable way of predicting what kind of food we’ll be eating in 10 or 15 years’ time? It is in search of the answers to these questions that Arla has opened its new centre. There are few dairy companies bigger than this cooperative, with operations that stretch from sub-Saharan Africa to China. Arla is the biggest supplier of milk to British supermarkets, and owns the Cravendale and Lurpak brands.
It knows it faces a huge challenge, Walker says. “If you look at consumption across Europe, most dairy is flat or in slight decline. That’s driven by a number of reasons. We eat less breakfast at home, and that means we pour less milk on to our cereal. We have less butter, or cheese on toast.” The decline of breakfast is partly the result of people ditching carbohydrates, but mostly driven by a lack of time, as people commute ever-longer hours to work. More people who eat a sit-down breakfast are choosing a plant-based milk such as soya or almond.
One of the challenges we have is teenagers not drinking milk. It is not that cool Sven Thormahlen, a 60-year-old German biochemist and the president of research and development at Arla, says he is “very concerned” by the rise of the dairy-free diet. “We are taking very seriously those consumers who say, ‘How sustainable is drinking milk? Can I justify it?’” Veganism was once considered an extreme diet; now, more than half a million people in the UK – an increase of 350% in a decade – describe themselves as vegan, while many more are flirting with veganism on an occasional basis, largely for environmental or ethical reasons. Added to this problem (for the dairy companies, at least) is the number of people who self-diagnose as lactose-intolerant (just 5% of the UK population is estimated genuinely to suffer from the condition).
Thormahlen, who is over 6ft and chuckles often, describes himself and Walker as Arla’s “terrible twins of innovation”. Walker, who is softly spoken and more serious, has a background in marketing. He used to work at Heinz, where he came up with the Snap Pots for baked beans: individual servings you pop into the microwave, rather than having to decant half a tin of baked beans into a bowl. “Matt comes to us with consumer insights. ‘This is the problem we want to solve.’ And we put our knowledge together to see if we can do it,” Thormahlen explains.
This is why I am looking at a row of snacks and bottles lined up on the lab counter, none of which I recognise. The first thing I pick up is a bottle of translucent pink liquid. This is what the terrible twins call “fizzy milk”. “One of the challenges we have is teenagers not drinking milk,” Walker says. “The insight we’ve found is that milk is not that cool.” He runs dozens of focus groups, which include inviting families into a mocked-up home within the innovation centre, with television, kitchen and sitting room, to see how children as well as adults react to their latest products.
The fizzy pink liquid is a byproduct of milk; developer Anne Evers Nikolajsen describes it to me as a “type of whey with no fat”. It contains a certain level of dairy protein and amino acids, but won’t curdle when mixed with the fruit juice that gives it its pink colour; it is then carbonated. “You could use it in a cocktail in the evening,” Evers Nikolajsen says. I am about to try it, but she looks horrified. The sample has gone off. “The microbiology is not good. It’ll definitely give you stomach ache. Please don’t taste it.”
I am, however, allowed to try yoghurt jerky, or yerky. This is designed to be chewy, but again the microbiology is not good: the team have yet to get the right consistency, and it is too hard. They hope to be able to get it right next year. Then there’s “solid milk”, which looks like fizzy milk – a white liquid with bubbles in it – but has the consistency of creme caramel. I have to suck it up through a wide straw from a glass bottle before it turns into a thick liquid in my mouth – a strange sensation.
“Right now, it’s a format game,” developer Lars Skytte Poulsen says with a boyish grin. “On the go, you don’t want to use a spoon. So, can you make something solid that you can eat with a straw?” His solid milk is regular milk thickened with 10% extra calcium, before being bottled and heated in a water bath. I am not convinced, but Poulsen is enthusiastic. “I really love this one. I took it home to my kids, and for them it was like a fairytale. They were eyes wide open.”
Next we come to “crunchy cheese”, the first product I would genuinely describe as tasty. Orange and puffy, the cheeses look like Wotsits; they are very light, but also hard. Popping one into my mouth, it is as crunchy as a pork scratching and intensely, deliciously cheesy; it’s also about 45% protein, around 50% higher than a chicken breast.
“This started as a mistake,” Poulsen says. “We were trying to dry it out to make a jerky, but we went too far and it became a pellet. So we decided to put it into a popcorn machine to make it puff up. We found that there is something really fantastic about applying the heat back into a dried product.” To replicate a popcorn machine on an industrial scale, they turn to something they call “the microwave” which looks like a giant washing machine. Over 45 minutes, it heats the small cubes of cheddar, spins them around and sucks out all the water. The protein content increases dramatically, because the water has been almost entirely removed.
The yoghurt jerky and the fizzy and solid milks are years away from hitting supermarket shelves, but crunchy cheese is likely to be on sale next year. For the first time, Arla will travel from the chiller cabinet into the snack aisle: a holy grail for food companies. “The current difficulty is that dairy doesn’t travel so well,” Thormahlen says. “I go hiking, I take a trail mix. But we think this innovation allows us to get into that market.”
Snacks have begun to boom in the last couple of years, shaking off their reputation as junk food for couch potatoes. “Now, all these nutrient-rich snacks are seen as quite aspirational,” Walker says; in our time-poor culture, snacking on a protein ball or bag of air-dried kale is not considered eccentric or lazy. According to the research company Kantar, more people now have snacks during the day than eat breakfast.
Arla’s final dish is a coconut and dairy yoghurt garnished with aniseed-flavoured, freeze-dried mealworms, the larvae of a beetle. Evers Nikolajsen insists the scattering of these small insects – just 3cm long – is not purely for show. “It’s a protein source. It’s trendy, it’s coming.”
And indeed it is. Insects are officially big in Denmark. One of Arla’s neighbours in the Aarhus complex is a tiny company called Enorm (a pun: “orm” means worm in Danish), which sells little jars of roasted mealworms, and has just started making insect crackers: Danish crispbreads with extra crunch.
“Right now, the insect snack is a gimmick, and often bought as a gift,” Jane Sam, director at Enorm, admits. “Only a few people buy it to put on their soups and salads. But it will be easier to integrate into our diet on a daily basis as a powder. You don’t see the bodies and the legs. There’s no yuck factor.” Sam believes that people who are interested in helping reduce the environmental impact of meat farming will soon embrace insects. “The whole point is that it is a more sustainable way of eating animal protein.”
Her crackers are tasty, but contain only 3% insect powder. “You could go up to 12%,” she says. “That’s not a problem for consumers. The problem is the price. We can’t add much more because insect powder is so expensive. It’s such a young industry, the suppliers can’t keep up with the demand.” A kilogram of mealworm flour currently costs nearly €56.
Lars Heckmann is attempting to crack this problem. He is group leader of insects at the Teknologisk Institut, a privately run research firm based in downtown Aarhus. With his mop of blond hair and schoolboy grin, he looks 10 years younger than his 41 years. “It’s all those insects,” he laughs as he shows me around his laboratory, with its trays of insect larvae – not just mealworms, but the larvae of black soldier flies, too.
“Right now, flies are a no-go,” he says. “It’s a little bit in-your-face. But maybe in five years? Look at sushi: 20 years ago, it was a no-go for many westerners. Raw fish? Come on! But our threshold for accepting new things drops continuously. That’s one of the effects of globalisation.”
Heckmann is determined to grow his insects more efficiently than the current “hobbyists”, as he describes the rest of the industry. He is analysing their optimal feed, breeding cycles and environment to see if he can do for insects what 20th-century farmers did for chickens: triple their size and so lower the cost of production. The environmental arguments for replacing meat with insects in our diets are compelling, Heckmann says: “They use 100 times less CO2, 1,000-fold less water. They are 10 times more efficient in their use of land.” His insects currently grow in trays in a shipping container-style unit. “But the potential of insects lies in vertical production. You can go up to 20m in height – it will then be 30 to 40 times more efficient than cows. You can stack them, like at Legoland.” You are never far from a Lego reference in Denmark.
Heckmann has an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. “They love insects to eat and explore. We are having insect pasta tonight – 20% of the dough is cricket. It’s delicious.” I try the dough. It has a slight bacon flavour.
Could cricket pasta be the answer to the world’s appetite for protein that isn’t meat? One company that should know is Barilla, the world’s largest pasta manufacturer, based in Parma, Italy. Its factory just outside the city produces 1,000 tonnes of pasta every day, and is so large that maintenance workers cycle the length of the 150m-long production lines to get to their next job.
The company is four years older than Arla, founded in 1877; it is still majority-owned and run by the Barillas, one of Italy’s richest families. They are acutely aware that some consumers are falling out of love with Italy’s national dish. Mintel calculates that pasta sales in Italy fell 2% every year between 2011 and 2015. “Refined carbohydrates are really in the firing line,” says food analyst Clifford. “Plant-based protein is the new killer trend.” Protein derived from pulses or soy has become more popular, either in snacks or added to other food. (Late last year, Warburtons launched a range of “protein bread” using chickpea and pea flour as well as wheat.)
Paolo Barilla, 56, is the vice-chairman of the company, and an ex-Formula One driver (he won Le Mans in 1985). “Historically, one family sat together around a table, with one big bowl of salad, or pasta, or meat: it was one thing for everybody,” he says, sitting in his office overlooking the factory. A large Picasso hangs on the wall. “But a family is no longer a family – there are more individuals at the table. That’s why pasta sales are down: people do not have the same habits as before.”
For him, insects are not the solution: “Though, theoretically, yes, we have looked at that.” He believes that if pasta is to win over young carb-phobic consumers, its producers need to embrace plant protein. Last year, Barilla followed Warburtons’ example and launched a number of pastas made using chickpea, lentil and pea flour, rather than durum wheat. “The Italian way is that gastronomy is related to the past, not the future,” Barilla says. “But we are very clear that if we don’t make our mind about the future, the company could disappear.”
Their more curious recent innovation is a 3D printing pasta machine, about which the company is both very excited and very secretive. I am allowed to watch it in action, but later told to delete any pictures I took. Housed in a small room in the corner of its research and development building, the printer is not much bigger than a microwave. The lab technician who demonstrates it reaches into a desk drawer full of Biros and a spanner, pulls out a bag of dough and squeezes it into a syringe, which is then placed in the printer. He goes to his computer and chooses a design for a pasta shape, presses “print” and the machine whirs into life.
Four minutes later, four intricate and identical fresh pasta pieces sit on a glass dish, having been constructed layer by layer like a coil pot. The finished shapes resemble the top of a ziggurat, a shape Barilla calls galassia, or galaxy; these are too complex to make using a traditional pasta machine. The company hopes that 3D printing can create designs able to hold a sauce better than anything previously created in pasta’s long history. But in the time it has taken to make just four pieces, the factory next door could knock out more than 600kg. If this is the future, it needs a lot of work.
Barilla believes the potential of the machine lies more in its ability to personalise pasta for consumers. The company owns three restaurants in New York , and is about to open one in California, where it intends to install 3D pasta printing. You will soon be able to order any shape from a long list: maybe your initials, or the logo of your football team.
Isn’t this just innovation for innovation’s sake? No, says Barilla, who believes this is just the start. The breakdown of the traditional family meal is an opportunity to embrace not just personalised shapes, but personalised nutrition; the idea that, according to your age or DNA or health, you should consume different food from your neighbour. “In my house, for example, I might have specific needs for fibre,” he explains. “So I can make a different pasta with twice the amount of fibre.”
His thinking, developed just three miles from the family’s original 19th-century bakery, is almost identical to that of Geoffrey Woo, 28, a computer engineer who lives in San Francisco. Woo is one of a burgeoning number of so-called bio-hackers in Silicon Valley. He runs a company called Nootrobox, which invented Go Cubes, a “chewable coffee” designed to give you the caffeine high without the jitteriness. “We wanted to re-engineer a cup of coffee into something more fit for cognitive performance,” Woo says. If you are drinking coffee to keep you awake, then a sloshing cup of hot liquid is a “not very precise, not very convenient and not very portable” way of getting that pick-me-up, he argues.
Woo, who wears a glucose monitor under his skin. so that he can continuously track his body’s “output”, also believes 3D printing is ideally suited to delivering bespoke nutrition. “Personalised is where the industry is moving. You are going to have smaller and smaller batch runs, 3D-printed, grown specifically for me or you. My plate of pasta will be different from your plate of pasta, based on where we want to be pushing our outcomes.”
This all seems rather joyless – food for the lab, rather than Legoland – but even the developers at Arla agree that personalised food will take off as the world’s population gets older, with older consumers needing more protein to sustain their muscle mass. “Go to South Korea and you’ll see food products marketed as if they are pet food,” Walker says. “Walk along the supermarket aisle and it’ll say, ‘Food for 50+, 60+, 70+.’”
When pushed, most developers admit it’s impossible fully to predict what will be on our plates in 10 or 15 years’ time. As Walker says, “Look at our politics. Sometimes it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year.” To me, it feels a stretch to believe we’ll be sitting down to a bowl of insect pasta pushed out of a 3D pasta-printing machine any time soon. But the march of healthy snacking, and food on the go, seems unstoppable. Sometimes, the most exciting developments are not those that use the latest technology, but the simple idea that “shifts the format”: why shouldn’t milk be fizzy, or yoghurt a chewy snack? Crunchy cheese? I’m looking forward to it.
(Guardian Service 2017)