Food in the Digital Age

Features - Food & Technology

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October 12, 2020

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There is extensive research and countless articles on the use and impacts of today’s technology in food production and traceability, but what are the implications if that is turned around? That is, what are the impacts of today’s technology on food culture and consumer purchases and consumption? In this article, we will address that question from two unique perspectives.

FOOD DESIGN. How people access information and knowledge about food is evolving. With different social media platforms, more educational information about food can reach consumers, which lets people make more thoughtful decisions. For instance, some may prefer that a grocery chain create a lower carbon footprint; others may be willing to buy more “ugly” produce to reduce food waste. But only a few people knew about these options a decade ago.

Technology has changed that. Following are six key areas where The SIX Co-founder and Food Designer Yunwen Tu sees increased access to technology as most significantly affecting consumer purchases and consumption:

  1. Building Trust. Technology enables businesses to share more about their food sources and production processes. This is gradually rebuilding the trust between consumers and companies. In the past, people might have related agriculture to suburban and rural areas due to massive land use. But emerging technologies, such as robotic indoor farming and cold-chain logistics systems, have changed our food distribution and urban planning. There are now more ways to support local farmers.
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  3. Live Streaming. In China, live-stream shopping has experienced significant growth during the pandemic. For example, a host showcases the farm and fresh produce on platforms like TikTok and provides links for purchasing the featured produce. This makes the online shopping experience more attractive and trustworthy through the host’s authenticity.
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  5. Evolving Lifestyles. One fundamental question is how people’s lifestyles and needs change with technological shifts. Will traveling for work be more or less common? Will people accept more innovative ingredients, such as clean meat? Will more young people feel comfortable living alone? The answer to each question could lead to significant differences in the design of food.
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  7. Mixed Reality. Our eating experience, which is an important part of food design, may open a new space with the growth of mixed reality — the merging of the physical and digital worlds. Research on the simulation of different sensations suggests that our eating experience can be partially or even completely simulative in the future. Our ways of entertainment and education will allow us to expand our creativity, such as the 3D dining experience at CIA Copia/Le Petit Chef.
  8. Food Production. With food production and distribution (which Tu considers to be part of food design) powered by the Internet of Things and AI, there is significant potential to improve industrial food production more precisely for customer needs. The plan of factory production or even crop planting can be more flexible based on real-time analytics.
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  10. E-Commerce. The inevitable growth of e-commerce, even without COVID-19, may impact how we market, produce, and distribute food in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our frequency of online grocery shopping. This e-commerce experience is faster and safer. However, it lacks the complex sensorial experiences of in-store shopping. It would be insightful to think about how we could improve that online experience and storytelling to connect with consumers.

What it All Means to the Food Industry: “I would always recommend learning more about younger generations through user interviews and data analysis from popular social media,” Tu said. “The trust issue between some consumers with business has been changing but never faded away. We should take advantage of technology to rebuild trust.”

 

A WELL-BEING CONDUIT. Describing food culture as “a conduit to finding and cultivating well-being,” Author and Founder of Food for Climate League Eve Turow-Paul sees an inexorable linkage between the digital age, well-being, and food culture, as follows:

  1. “Empty Pockets.” When the iPhone debuted in 2007, it drastically impacted our existence, how we value self-worth, and what we see as our role in the world. With the rise of technology, there are rising rates of anxiety and stress, especially for those under 40, who are the primary users of the technology — and make up half the global population. These emotional needs then impact our food choices, with food serving to fill “empty pockets.”
  2. Well-being. Technology hinders three areas of human well-being, and food selection is one way in which consumers are finding solace. These include:
  • Desire for Control. People want to feel safe, but how we create and define safety has changed, including the perception of safe food and trust in the companies that produce it (e.g., knowing about our food, where it is from, how it is produced). This translates to a desire for transparency — food labels with simple ingredients, perception of GMOs, etc. — Technology drives this sense of distrust because so much is reported and shared that is negative. At the same time, the increased amount of information is making consumers feel they have the information to make their own decisions — giving back that feel of control.
  • Community. In contrast to what one with hundreds of Facebook friends may perceive, social media makes us lonelier. COVID is currently operating as a band aid, but outside COVID, social media is replacing in-person interaction. Having enough “Likes,” etc. provides social validation — but those aren’t the people who will come take care of you if you are sick. The technological sense of community has expanded into the food world through social media “tribes” for special diets (e.g., vegan, intermittent fasting, etc.); live-streamed meal sharing; and even interaction, such as paleo-vegan speed dating.
  • Meaning and Purpose. COVID-19 has increased the ever-present knowledge of the passage of time, so consumers are seeking to make the most of time — making foods that excite all the senses, creating tangible things, and getting back to nature.
  • An Intersection. Technology has significantly altered consumer food selection, but it is even bigger than that. It is the intersection of the digital age, well-being, and food culture that is driving the industry to change and will be key to success in the future. Each directly impacts the other: the digital age impacts well-being, and the ability to meet well-being is impacted by how people spend their money and time in food culture.

What it All Means to the Food Industry: Food manufacturers need to understand what today’s consumers need to feel well, what hinders that, and what it is about food that people are turning to. Determine what the problems will be a year from now, Turow-Paul said. “Can you solve them now? Can you make people feel safer, in control, part of a community, and empowered to make decisions?”

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Above all, don’t expect things to go back to the pre-pandemic norm which was dysfunctional, not environmentally friendly, and lacking social justice.

“Our food has drastically changed over last 10 years because of young people expressing themselves through food, which impacts every facet of the food system,” she said. “Millennial foodies are already changing it. And the trends will be amplified.”

So it’s about preparing for and being part of a new reality. “What have you wanted to do but couldn’t because it would have to dismantle the supply chain?” Turow-Paul said. “Think like a start-up. You have to be able to innovate.”

The author is Senior Advisor and Former Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.