The future of food: from insect burgers to smart fridges
Think of a world where we eat bugs, smart fridges tell us what to cook, and eggs do not involve hens. It’s almost here
A grasshopper burger: the UN has been encouraging the use of insects in food, highlighting their nutritional value and affordability. Photograph: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty
Smart fridges: LG is working on fridges that scan products as they go in, monitor expiry dates and offer recipe suggestions. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty
It’s always fun to imagine what we might be eating in the future. Will we sit down to meat that has been grown in a lab? Will there will be a bowl of cricket fried rice on the table? Will our meal come in a sachet?
The way we eat is changing. The global population is expected to hit nine billion by 2050, and climate change and water shortages are expected to affect the way we farm. Food prices will increase and meat shortages are predicted.
Food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye compiles a biannual food trend compendium, Bellwether: Food Trends (bellwetherft.com), which makes forecasts based on factors such as geopolitics, culture, beliefs and the environment. Bord Bia’s head of consumer insight and innovation, Helen King, is constantly researching trends so the body can advise Irish food businesses how to cope with the changing landscape.
We ask them to gaze into their crystal fruit bowls and tell us what’s going to be on our plates as we hurtle towards 2020.
1 Fridges will be smarter than us
Let’s face it. Our fridges do very little apart from keep our food cold and burp out ice cubes if we’re lucky. But in five years’ time, they will be working harder and smarter. South Korean manufacturer LG’s most advanced smart refrigerator has a built-in camera that allows owners to see what’s in the fridge as they stand in the aisle of a supermarket, phone in hand. The fridge can scan products as they go in, monitor expiry dates and offer recipe suggestions based on the fridge’s contents. That technology became available in South Korea last May, but, like plasma screens, it is expected to become the standard in years to come.
King says this focus on expiry dates is also being informed by the drive to reduce waste. “Consumers and brands are looking at different ways of reducing the wasteful results of consumption as the focus on making the most of what is around us has intensified.”
2 Technology will do all the heavy lifting
It’s not only our fridges that are getting smarter. LG is also rolling out an oven that asks you what you would like to make and then offers a recipe for the dish. It will allow you to set the temperature and cooking time remotely.
And then there’s Drop, the smart kitchen scale and app, co-created by Dubliner Ben Harris. It does everything from rescaling quantities and suggesting substitutions if you’ve run out of an ingredient to automatically turning the screen to the next step in the recipe after you have added an ingredient, thus avoiding floury fingerprints all over your iPad.
If only these smart appliances could order the food and deliver it. Gaye says that day is coming fast. She says the next step will be smart equipment that recognises when a product is running low and will order it for you online.
Evian already has an internet-connected fridge magnet that orders your water for home delivery at the press of a button, saving you the bother of lugging heavy bottles home from the supermarket.
All this means that online shopping is bound to increase. King says online shopping is showing significant growth, facilitated by portable, handheld devices and speedier networks. “In 2012, 94 per cent of Irish consumers made a purchase online. While PCs remain the dominant device for online shopping, 16 per cent of adults have used a tablet to purchase something online and 22 per cent have used a smartphone,” she says.
3 You’ll pay more for food
Pretty much everyone agrees that the price of food will go up. Supermarkets have been engaged in a price war, but it won’t last and prices will start to rise.
Gaye says the price of meat will double within five years because the price of feed is expected to increase. “There will be a lot more interest around water shortages globally. Australia will be badly affected by that. Water shortages and water quality affects crops and that affects animal feed.”
She says an EU drive to reduce inputs into food production by 2020 will see a reduction in the use of certain pesticides and insecticides, which will affect crop size and the speed of growth. And when crop prices rise, cattle prices will follow suit.
4 Meat will become more of a treat
Gaye says the increased price of meat will turn going to the butcher shop into a more high-end experience as consumers demand more for their money. “We’re going to be learning about butchery from the butcher again. We’ll understand much more about where our meat comes from, how it’s kept and what’s good for us.”
She says the trend in Los Angeles now is for grass-fed beef, which should be music to the ears of Ireland’s grass-fed cattle industry.
She says the rising cost of meat will see it being eaten less but respected more. “It will be a little bit like we were doing in the 1970s, when we had a joint of meat on a Sunday and it would last until we were boiling bones by Thursday.”
Dried meat snacks such as jerky will become more popular because of the long shelf life, she predicts. “I think people will start to see it as the carb-free snacking option, and right now that’s a big market in snacking that hasn’t been fulfilled yet.”
But while a reduction in meat-eating may be true for developed countries, King says meat consumption is increasing around the world in less developed countries. She says there will be meat shortages in the future, because of the demand from these emerging middle classes.
5 There’ll be even more ‘impossible foods’
Water shortages and climate change will affect the way we farm, so scientists are busy trying to find alternative ways of producing food. Last year, the world’s most expensive burger was unveiled, having been grown from muscle stem cells in a lab at a cost of €250,000, which was paid by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Gaye says lab-grown meat probably won’t be affordable in the next five years “but we will be getting closer to that possibility”.
The artificial egg has already arrived in the US. The egg substitute, made from plants, is the brainchild of Hampton Creek chief executive Josh Tetrick. His eggless mayonnaise is now on US grocery shelves, and he says the artificial egg is just the first step in his mission to reinvent how protein is delivered to people. Farmers won’t be his biggest fans as he wants to make eggs obsolete and take the animal out of farming. But he doesn’t need the support of the IFA because his plan has attracted investment from Bill Gates and the support of influential figures such as journalist and activist Michael Pollan, and Martha Stewart.
Stanford University professor Patrick Brown is on a similar mission with his company Impossible Foods. He has created a vegetarian burger that bleeds when you press down on it. The blood effect in the plant-based burger comes from heme, or plant blood, found in the plant version of haemoglobin.
And then there’s Soylent, the meal in a sachet that sounds like something from a sci-fi movie. It is designed for use as a staple meal by adults, each serving providing all the elements of a healthy diet, without the sugars, saturated fats and cholesterol.
It began shipping from California in April, and there’s a waiting list of up to three months for new orders. Rob Rhinehart came up with the idea when he was working on a technology start-up and he began to resent the time and money he was spending preparing meals. Enthusiasts say it’s great for people who don’t have time to eat, but it does conjure up a vision of office drones sipping beige liquids at their desks instead of going for a sandwich with colleagues.
6 You won’t gag at the thought of an insect burger
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has been encouraging the use of insects in food, highlighting their nutritional value and affordability compared with protein from sources such as cattle. A recent Belgian study found that one in five meat eaters were ready to adopt insects as food, with men being more than twice as likely to do so as women. It said the trendsetters in adopting insects as food would be young men who were interested in the environmental impact of their food choices and open to trying novel foods.
“In five years’ time we’ll definitely start to see lots of insect protein coming in,” says Gaye. “We’ll start to see cricket flour and different sorts of insect protein being used. Maybe there’ll be an insect burger being sold by then.”
7 Food will become more fashionable
Previous generations used music, clothes or politics to express who they were, but King says food is increasingly filling that role. This is particularly the case for millennials (22- to 30-year-olds), she argues. This age group is very influential because of its use of social media.
Dishes are being Instagrammed, good and bad restaurant experiences are getting the Twitter and Facebook treatment and people are vying with colleagues to bring the most beautiful confections to work on baking day. “Food is everything they are interested in having more of in their life,” she says. “It’s sociable, it’s prestigious and it’s adventurous.”
8 You’ll BYO vegetables (and eat more with strangers)
The move towards informality in restaurants will continue, with strangers sharing tables more and people looking for more interaction with chefs in their drive towards authenticity and transparency, according to Gaye. “I think we’re not that far from bringing our own vegetables, our own produce, into a restaurant. It will be a much more collaborative experience, a lot less to choose from on a menu and a lot more seasonal, like it’s homemade.”
She has also noticed a trend towards people wanting to share tables instead of eating alone. This desire to eat with others was spotted by Israeli entrepreneur Guy Michlin, who has started a company called EatWith. Similar to the Airbnb concept, it allows individuals travelling abroad to eat in the homes of local people and to share experiences.
9 More food scandals are on the way
The horsemeat scandal left a legacy, and more rigorous testing has become standard in the food industry. Inevitably this will throw up more cases of cheaper product being substituted for the real thing. Last month, British consumer watchdog Which? revealed that it had tested 76 goat’s cheese samples in the UK and found that, in six cases, half or more of the product was sheep’s cheese. It commissioned the tests with Prof Chris Elliott, author of the British government’s independent review into the horsemeat crisis after becoming suspicious that, although there was a well-documented shortage of goat’s milk, it had not affected the amount of cheese on shop shelves.
10 'Free-from’ foods will take up more space on supermarket shelves
Although just 1 per cent of the population is coeliac, the sale of gluten-free products is rocketing. King says choosing products for those with allergies and intolerances has become a lifestyle choice as products become tastier and offer more variety.
Gaye says the next wave of new products will be foods with added health benefits, such as those that benefit macular health. “What has it got in it that’s going to make me feel better, energised, less tired? It won’t necessarily be about gluten-free.”
She predicts a backlash against juices and smoothies because of their sugar content. “We’ll be looking to medicate ourselves every day with what we eat. We’ll probably be able to scan our thumb print into our phone and it will tell us our nutritional needs and give us an outline of what those things might be in our daily diet.”