London Food Tech Week

Not a Conference...

OK, so last week was a bit hectic for me. I was given the opportunity to go to London Food Tech Week, which has been on my radar for several years. As I am both a bit of a culinary Luddite and an anthropologist, the tech and future side of food is a bit new to me. However, this (I am not allowed to say “conference”) week was a revelation, insightful, and a bit of a blast.

As per my previous post, I feel like writing about the whole week would be a bit much, therefore, I will take a speech or element in isolation and discuss that further. Whilst I did do some networking whilst I was there, I predominantly just listened and spoke to the baristas (see, my addiction to coffee is rearing its ugly head again) however, I feel this gave me a good understanding of what was being talked about. The two lectures that I would like to discuss are the ones by Dr. Morgaine Gaye and Dr. Charles Spence.

Dr Morgaine Gaye is a Food Futurologist—a job that I was glad to see existed, and I felt like her lecture really spoke to me as an anthropologist and an ardent foodie. In case you want to check her, out this is her website where she works in food branding and trend predicting. Her lecture was entitled "Democratising Nutrition," which made me think of how the idea of globalisation has increased the democratisation of politics and democracy, and therefore the same can be said for how the idea of democratisation is the newest trend in food provisioning.

She started off by providing a potted history of what informs our choice of foods: taste, history (both national and familial), our identity and how we perceive ourselves, culture, socialisation, and how we ate in the past, which will inform our present and future eating habits.

I think that the ultimate point of her lecture was that, in the future, because of the different food trends, there will be changed mealtimes and flexibility. She also put forward the idea of “just in case;" this would see more people carry around food items (i.e: granola bars) in their bags, which would lead to overeating, but also a greater personalisation in food. That health and nutrition are of vital importance to consumers is backed up by consumers' returning fermentation. This is because fermentation, the whole method of which is based on lactic acids, is now considered a superfood. Superfoods (the name given to super nutritious foods by the media) have been a growing trend for some time, and to Dr. Gaye’s (and mine) mind, it is just a logical extension. The other aspect of fermentation that causes it to be on the rise is that it uses surplus, which consumers are repeatedly told to avoid or create something out of. This seems to bridge two facets of what consumers are informed of into one combined product, which, in some ways highlights the personalisation and sustainable trend.

The personalisation in food is pushed further by the advent of embedded and physical tech within the human body. They indicate what a person needs nutritionally. This is then added to by a DNA profile, which allows food and nutrition to be curated to a very personal degree—what is good for you nutritionally may not be good for your neighbour. Again, all of these technological advances create something that is highly personal, very individual, and, to my mind, gets away from the commensality (or enjoyment and socialisation) of eating. This view on food has a very Western and individuality-focused leaning, and poses the questions: what and how do people want to interact with their food? Is this personalisation just an obvious extension of ultra free market thinking?

Connected to this lack of commensality is the idea that vending machines are growing in popularity again, that they are not only coin operated, but also contactless, creates a very modern twist to a rather retro product. This trend can already be seen in the individual vending machines we come across in our daily lives, but also with whole restaurants now devoted to vending machines. I feel that this could be because there is an uptick in dining alone and that mega-cities can drive a feeling of loneliness and lack of community. Not only does this return to what Dr. Gaye had been saying about personalisation, as vending machines indicate a very impersonal form of eating from the point of view of interactions, but personal in the sense that one can eat whatever and have a flexible eating style. However, in my view, this created a very dystopian picture of consumption.

Dr. Spence was slightly different. His background was in psychology, and he primarily investigated how the senses interact on how we view food. This argument links back to Dr. Sutton in the previous post. The theme of his lecture was how tech could help augment food in general. He explored the diverse ways that AR can reach different senses, particularly sight, sound, and smell, and then have an impact on the food we eat. This can all be added together to create a very curated experience for the diner. However, he, too, questioned the impact that this could potentially have to the experience. The other side of AR and its impact on food is one that concerns global warming. If we project ourselves into the future, one where resources are limited, then AR could help humans to mitigate a loss of biodiversity by creating tastes and smells that we used to be familiar with.

I think, by this time, I really felt that I was part of a burgeoning Black Mirror episode, and it felt as though tech was creating a future for food that was impersonal (human interaction-wise) and lacking in enjoyment. However, the rest of the week proved me wrong, because what’s being done with food and tech at present is exciting, and at some point, there will be a post on how block chains are creating a stir in the food world.

Finally, a big thank you to the team at YFoods. If you’re interested in the marriage of tech and food, they hold many events that focus on that!

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