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The end of one-size fits all food

The digital transformation of our food system has seen us switch from searching the supermarket shelves, and dining at our favourite restaurants, to procuring food through a screen. This digital revolution has made it easier to access food, but the added convenience is just the beginning in a digitised food system. Food innovation expert, Mike Lee explores how technologies like nutrigenomics, multispectral imaging, AI and plant breeding will see an end to ‘one-size fits all’ food and diets.

9 min read
Personalised medicine

As we are furiously adding grocery items into our shopping carts, ordering restaurant delivery meals, searching online recipes and scanning loyalty cards on our smartphones, we are leaving a long trail of data behind us that helps paint a picture of our food preferences and habits. Upstream in the food system where food is grown, processed, and shipped, there is also a large ocean of tracking data collected to create a digital fingerprint of the food supply chain.

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After decades of accumulating data in the food system, we are moving from sensing information to sense making. Algorithms are sorting and searching food and helping us make decisions about nutrients, taste, sustainability, and more. With new types of food data, we can see patterns more easily, understand trends, forecast supply and demand, and discover new data points about our food that will fuel powerful tools for producers and consumers.

The past 20 years represent an exponential rise in the knowledge and choice we have available to us. The next 20 years will introduce ways to better zero in on the handful of food choices that are most meaningful to our health, lifestyle, and taste.

Nutrition gets personal

Eac­­­h and every one of our bodies are unique, and while anecdotally we understand our bodies will respond to different foods in different ways, the genomic revolution has led to a new way of understanding the relationship between our bodies, the food we consume and our own health.

Illustration by Nathan Huang. Cover image for New York Times Sunday Review Opinion piece The A.I. Diet Forget government-issued food pyramids. Let an algorithm tell you how to eat. By Eric Topol.

The science is not new, but as individuals, we are only just starting our journey to understand what our own bodies need and to connect those needs with foods that enrich ourselves in a way that’s tailored, or personalised, to us. To answer the question, “what food does my body need now?” there are two parts of the equation:

  1. What’s happening inside my body right now?; and
  2. What food(s) can help my body reach a more desired state?

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For our bodies, we have slowly become more bionic with each decade that passes as computers enhance our capabilities in increasingly more intimate ways. Mainframe computers were unwieldy and removed from our everyday lives, then personal computers entered our homes, followed by smartphones that entered our pockets, with smart watches being attached to our bodies. Embeddable computers seem wildly futuristic and strange to us today, but arguably no more than smart watches may have seemed to people just three or four decades ago.

Our devices are our digital limbs with little evidence to suggest that we will ever revert back to purely analogue beings. Ethical and existential questions aside, these electronic appendages are creating terabytes of digital data that describe the daily activities and states of our bodies. FitBits, Garmin Watches, Apple Health, and even our Alexas and Google Home units are watching us and crunching our data to try and predict our needs before we even know what they are.

And while we’ve been able to track basic vitals like heart rate, blood sugar levels, and sleep patterns for some time, new technologies like Day Two, a leading microbiome-based precision health company, are helping us to understand our personal biochemistry in unprecedented ways, and to manage or prevent chronic conditions through diet. We are still in the early stages of understanding the causal relationship between our gut health and our diet, but technologies like Day Two are paving the way, giving us a snapshot of what is happening in our bodies in a very detailed way, and to modify our diets accordingly.

Let’s imagine that in a decade or so, we are all able to read our own bodies in highly granular and useful ways. This is half of what’s needed to bring the ambitious promise of truly personalised nutrition to life. Of course, the second half of the story is about understanding our food as well as we understand our own bodies.

Digging deeper on food

We scan our credit cards at the register to buy things. We scan our ID cards to gain entry to the office. We scan countless QR codes to get restaurant menus or other pieces of information. Now envisage a world where you can scan a piece of fruit at the supermarket or farmer’s market, or maybe even the chicken on your plate in a restaurant to get the nutritional value of that food without having to rely on a label.

Photo by mk. s on Unsplash

Imagine being able to tell the difference in nutrient density between seemingly identical looking fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market? And being able to ask the farmer what they did on the farm to yield such great specimens. In this future world handheld spectrometers are accessible and even embedded into our existing personal devices.

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The Bionutrient Food Association (BFA) is one company working on technology to bring us closer to a world like this.

“We hope that by making the principles of high-quality crop production readily available to growers, awakening consumers to the dramatic disparities in the food supply chain, and then providing them with the capacity to make purchasing decisions accordingly, we can realistically affect food quality,” says the association.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. And giving consumers and industry alike the tools to readily assess the nutrient density at the individual produce item level would create a groundswell of demand for better quality foods. The BFA’s handheld Bionutrient Meter is a spectrometer that can identify the chemical makeup of a food with a non-invasive flash of light.

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With this technology in hand, the average consumer could scan their way around supermarket produce aisles, picking only the individual fruits and vegetables with the best nutrient content. Growers would have great incentive to find ways to amp up the nutritional content in their produce. When the average shopper can identify the chemical makeup of a piece of food, there is no way to hide sub-par quality, and nutritional standards will rise across the agrifood industry.

Bionutrient Meter is a handheld spectrometer

Bionutrient Meter is a handheld spectrometer that works through the principle of spectroscopy. The Bionutrient Institute is a project of the Bionutrient Food Association. Photo credit: The Bionutrient Food Association.

These insights into the true nutritional value of our food coupled with the intelligence about our individual body’s needs, we have the ‘data’ necessary to create personalised ‘prescriptions’ to reach our health goals. Future innovations in AI could automate this process and begin to predict how our bodies nutritional needs will fluctuate while training for a marathon, trying to lose weight, studying for an exam, or any other activity that could be optimised with intelligent food recommendations.

In this future state, we use technology to better understand our bodies and make logical connections between the two. We know what foods to buy from the grocery store in order to make us feel our best. But are there foods out there that we haven’t yet discovered or integrated into our diets that have nutritional benefits we don’t know about?

75 per cent of the world’s diet relies on just 12 plants and five animal species. And “of the four per cent of the 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Exploring a fuller set of these plants and animals for foods that can enhance our health, culture, and everyday eating experiences in new ways is one of the next frontiers in agriculture.

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Foraging for nutrition

Brightseed is a company at the forefront of exploration for new plant-based food compounds that can improve our well-being. Its flagship technology, Forager, uses AI to rapidly analyse thousands of compounds within plants and discover which of them have untapped health benefits that can impact human health.


Photo credit: Brightseed

Through pre-clinical studies, Forager identified two bioactive compounds – NTC and NFT – that have the potential to strengthen human gut linings and help improve overall gut health. The technology was then able to scan a dataset of food sources to identify that these bioactives were available in 80 different plants, with the hulls of the hemp seed to be one of the richest sources of NTC and NFT. Brightseed could then use hemp hulls to create a food ingredient that could be added to any number of foods − cereal, smoothies, baked goods, and more − to strengthen your gut lining and improve gut health.

The work that Brightseed does is one of the most high-tech ways to add tools to our nutritional toolkits and help humans take advantage of more of nature’s unknown bounty. But AI powered discovery methods aren’t the only way to find new foods to enrich our lives.

Row-7 Seed Company is co-founded by Michelin Star chef Dan Barber, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek, and seedsperson Matthew Goldfarb. Their central thesis is that the pursuit of outstanding flavour in farming is the best way to improve the health and enjoyment of our food.

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“Long before a cookbook is cracked − even before farmers sow their fields − plant breeders write recipes for our ingredients. The problem? Too often, they are asked to select for yield, shelf life and uniformity at the expense of good food, nutrition, and our environment. What if, instead, we started with what’s delicious?” says Row-7.

This exploration has led them to produce and sell non-GMO seeds for vegetables with superior and unique flavour. The Upstate Abundance Potato is one that when simply boiled and pureed with nothing more than a touch of salt, tastes as if it had been infused with mounds of butter and cream. The incredible richness comes from the natural characteristics of the plant itself and breaks the glass ceiling of perception for how delicious an unadorned potato can taste.

Their Habanada Pepper is a variant on the Habanero Pepper except without the notorious heat that pepper bears, which allows the floral sweetness of it to shine through − a flavour profile that is often lost as eaters’ taste buds are flooded with spice. And the Badger Flame Beet pushes the envelope on sweetness while pulling back on the beet’s signature earthiness to redefine the idea of nature’s candy.

All of these vegetables were made using traditional cross breeding techniques and diving deep into seed banks to showcase overlooked varieties that fell out of favour in exchange for the kinds of high yield, yet blander seeds demanded by industrial agriculture.

Often, we don’t realise how much more flavoursome our produce, meat, and seafood can be because most people have eaten the industrially produced varieties all their lives. We think potatoes need butter and cream because the mass produced varieties don’t have the same sensuous mouthfeel as the Upstate Abundance Potato. Consumers also don’t realise that there are literally thousands of wonderful potato varieties but our local grocery stores only give us access to four to give kinds of potatoes at most. Our industrial agricultural system is prolific, but at the expense of crowding out foods that have remarkable nutrition and flavour from our diets.

The end of one size fits all food

The planet is anticipated to have 10 billion people on it by the year 2050. With near certainty, most of that population will be digitally empowered and with the innovations mentioned above in place, these 10 billion people will have 10 billion sets of unique nutritional and taste needs. The more we can understand our health, the more opportunities there are for food producers to meet highly specific food needs. When people see themselves as true individuals, they tend to reject being lumped into a lowest common denominator consumer segment. What does it mean for mass produced foods when all consumers don’t see themselves as one of the masses anymore?

There will certainly be scores of nutritional needs that will emerge that simply cannot be predicted today.  The growth of the ‘gluten-free’ industry is a perfect example of how our bodies needs have forced the food industry to bend to its will.

What else will our bodies demand from our food in the future? It’s impossible to say for sure right now, but with innovations from companies like the Bionutrient Food Association, Brightseed, and Row-7 Seed Company, we have a greater chance of being able to pair the perfect food to our bodies needs.

Read more of Mike Lee’s opinion pieces about the future of our food system here.

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