You might not associate digital transformation with the food industry, but innovative food services, products and trends show otherwise.
Remember your last meal? Would your grandparents enjoy it? And will your grandkids even remember that dish? Today, the very definition of food is evolving.
We know that the food retail experience is changing – self-scan checkouts, grocery delivery, meal kits, and restaurant delivery have become commonplace. But it’s more than just the transportation and delivery methods that are evolving; food itself has become part of the digital transformation. In this article, we’ll examine how everything about food – from its definition to our relationship with ingredients, nutrition, and food retail – is changing.
Food 4.0: The evolution of food retail
If you’re not familiar with it, Food 4.0 is a campaign to feed nine billion people around the world safely, sustainably, affordably, and securely. So far, it’s tackled simple harvesting, progressed to manufacturing at a larger scale, and utilized science to help us maximize food production. Now, approaching the end of 2020, we see more companies planning to offer safe, sustainable, affordable, and secure food for all.
If you live in a food-secure area (i.e. where neither availability, cost, or your personal finances prevent you from getting nutritious food), it may not seem like you’re impacted by Food 4.0. But these advances, goals, and mindsets are showing up in mainstream food retail as well. So, let’s look at 5 key food areas – inspiration, shopping, preparation, eating, and waste reduction – and consider the impact of food trends and digitalization on each area.
Food industry trends that are changing our world
Innovation in the food industry’s services, products, and experiences have already begun broadening our culinary and nutritional horizons. Let’s consider each area in detail – specifically, the key trends that are driving change and what we should take away from each one.
Step #1 Inspiration: What’s Motivating Food Choices
First, let’s consider inspiration, or what prompts people to make the food choices they do. This has more in common with digitalization than you might think.
Professional Input. Individuals don’t always make the healthiest decisions – that’s why we need professionals to help us fuel our bodies with the right food. Some stores (like Geisinger’s Fresh Food Farmacy) have doctors and nutritionists on site to help individuals make healthier food choices. In the future, getting professional food guidance will be more accessible than ever.
Self-monitoring. Many people want to take control of their diet. Thus, services and products that encourage self-monitoring are becoming available. For example, companies like Gini use DNA and various biometrics to help consumers track their diet in new ways. They also give users information to make better health decisions.
Shifting values. There’s a growing sense of responsibility over food choices among consumers; we can see it in the various diets people follow. Thus, we see brands becoming more attentive to their customers’ values; fast-food behemoth McDonald’s tested a PLT (Plant Lettuce Tomato) sandwich option, showing us that businesses are ready to adopt new ethical standards.
We foresee consumers getting inspiration through a multitude of products and services, especially those that offer personalized recommendations and valuable information leading to informed decisions. Individuals want their food customized to fit their diet, health, DNA, and values; mass-personalization will help companies meet that need.
Step #2 Food Shopping Experience
From thought to action, we now move to the food shopping experience. This is where digital transformation really comes into food retail on a consumer level – indeed, many food retailers are going at least partly digital.
Digitalization of food retail. COVID-19 did more than spark increased interest in online shopping and grocery delivery. Digital food retailing and blended digital-physical in-store experiences (e.g. food-ordering apps, in-store AI-powered shopping assistants, smart shopping carts) have been popping up. Another digital retail trend, personalization, is also making its mark on food retail.
On-demand mindset. Nobody likes to wait, queue, and carry all those bags of groceries home. Our on-demand society is pushing companies to creatively find quicker delivery methods – witness companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Instacart promising 1- or 2-hour delivery services. These are currently available in some markets; we can expect to see them expand their reach as time goes by.
Transparency and traceability. Transparency is especially important when it comes to our food choices; people are becoming more interested in the source and sustainability of what they eat. In Belgium, the supermarket chain Delhaize directly addressed their consumers’ concerns by bringing accountability and traceability to their processes. One of the ways they opted for greater transparency was by turning one of their supermarket’s roof into an urban farm. This addressed both transparency and environmental concerns.
How we shop for our food will become a blend of physical and digital touchpoints. These frictionless experiences should be easy, convenient, and informative. More importantly, they’ll bring value to the consumers and transform the food shopping experience.
Step #3 Food Preparation Methods & Ingredients
Digital transformation goes beyond food retail; it extends into kitchens, appliances, and even ingredients.
Smarter appliances and services. Connected kitchen robots might be impressive, but we believe that it’s the new wave of smart appliances that will make the difference. By combining such appliances with fresh food delivery services to the masses, Tovala has managed to craft a unique chef-like dining experience inside the home. Merging connected appliances and food-related services will change how we prepare our food in the future.
New food production methods. The production of food is also undergoing its own digital transformation; OPEN MEALS, the people behind Sushi Singularity, are exploring digital food libraries and translating them physically through 3D-printed “pixel” sushi. Another Japanese Shojinmeat Project pushes the envelope on the grow-it-yourself trend by fostering lab-grown ‘clean meat’ experiments.
Emphasizing sustainable alternatives. In 2019, Knorr and Sodexo published their Future 50 Foods list. The goal was to broaden people’s culinary horizons by promoting certain local and sustainable foods (mostly plant-based), thus raising awareness of some of the alternatives available to the standard Western diet.
Technology will challenge traditional cooking and growing practises. Smart kitchen equipment and digitally-enhanced food production methods will expand the reach of DIY food; meanwhile, the increasing importance of sustainable and alternative ingredients will offer new spins on classic dishes.
Step #4 Eating Habits and Tastes
Is the actual eating experience open to digitalization? Well, the technology is certainly available …
Digitally enhanced food. Mixed reality – enhancing the smell, taste, and general food experience with virtual reality – is being explored by Project Nourished and other companies. Using technologies like AI, they’re developing new combinations and flavors for traditional foods.
Alternative food sources. As environmental concerns become even more pressing, companies are using science to find creative alternatives. For example, Atomo replicates the molecular compounds in coffee; the result is identical in aroma and flavour, but with a significantly smaller environmental footprint. This can also extend to utilizing invasive species as food; some London restaurateurs are using invasive crayfish from the Thames in their menus.
Tableware that encourages mindfulness. Food consumption in Western countries has risen, giving an apparent link to obesity and other health issues. But we humans are not designed to precisely track everything we eat. Thus, new plate add-ons like Volumes by Marije Vogelzang and other innovative tools force us to slow down, eat mindfully, and reduce overeating.
By incorporating technology and partially digitizing our food consumption experience, we can ‘trick’ our senses into tasting more and eating less. This allows us to have that wow! reaction we’re all looking for, but in a more sustainable and environmentally-conscious way.
Step #5 Reducing Waste
Innovative food services and experiences are all well and good, but there are some decidedly unsavory leftovers in the modern food chain. What are we going to do about all the wasted ingredients, unused byproducts, and spent packaging?
Creating new products from old rubbish. One person’s trash can often be turned into another’s treasure. That’s the idea behind Aeropowder. By turning 10,000+ tons of unused feathers from chicken production into insulating packaging material, they’ve come up with an imaginative solution to one aspect of food waste. Other companies are also creating new products from waste or trash.
Minimizing industry waste. The food industry itself creates a lot of detritus (via damaged goods, byproducts, processing, etc.); therefore, companies are turning to data analytics to reduce unnecessary waste. For example, FreshAI is collecting insights on consumer shopping habits, analyzing POS and inventory data to develop recommendations on how stores can optimize stocks and reduce waste by streamlining their inventory.
Reducing personal waste. Ever had to throw out unused food because it spoiled before you could use it? Mimica’s intuitive label degrades at the same rate as the food, letting you know when it’s still safe to consume. It takes into account environmental factors like air temperature and ambient moisture, encouraging you to use your food while it’s still edible.
Reducing Food Waste Takeaway
The way we consume food no longer ends with the meal. We need to evaluate how to dispose of waste from our food products. Ideally, this will lead to designing a system that includes better waste management as part of our collective lifestyle.