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Food Vision Big Debates: Ethical eruptions, technological disruptions, challenged assumptions


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Molecular gastronomy as presented by Hervé This was one version of the food future articulated at Food Vision 2015 in Cannes last week
Molecular gastronomy as presented by Hervé This was one version of the food future articulated at Food Vision 2015 in Cannes last week

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Big Food needs to care more; start-ups can’t feed a planet housing 9bn people in 2050; and genuine disruptive technologies are spawning and spinning faster than flapping butterfly wings…So, er, stay calm and keep making (hopefully healthy) food.

I could go on… so many thought-provoking takeaways from last week’s 3-day Food Vision​ congress in Cannes, France.

What about?

  • 3D food printing is set to explode with massive transportation ramifications
  • Sensory science is rapidly evolving eating occasions
  • Engineered foods (not necessarily genetically) can nutritiously feed the world’s poorest
  • Corporate culture is evolving beyond pure profit
  • Plant-based nutrition and not necessarily vegetarianism can save the world (with celebrity assistance)
  • Digital tek is providing the missing link to bring nutrigenomics to reality after decades of promise

A veritable smorgasbord although if food-bending French molecular gastronomer Hervé This organised it, an utterly whole food-free feast. This is someone to challenge your preconceptions of what food is, can be and should be. Blue molecule steak anyone? His ideas shock some.

In The Big Debate two of the world’s biggest ingredients firms, DSM and BASF, addressed food and nutrition challenges, their role in advancing nutrition and equity, and their relationship to other stakeholders like regulators, NGOs and start-ups not to mention people, sorry consumers.

 BASF’s human nutrition chief Francois Scheffler said the industry has to lead to drive change around better nutrition and sustainability and not wait to be prodded by governments.

“The use of technology is a game changer,” ​he told the congress. “We need to team up with dietary advice boards…but governments won’t do everything. Industry has to take the lead.”

He said start-ups needed to keep innovating but needed bigger food players on board to feed expanding populations which provoked some debate about the merits of successful start-ups later being bought by large food enterprises - a point that was raised during a separate debate on healthfulness in soft drinks.

Scandinavian nutrition sector strategist Virpi Varjonen accused the food industry of not genuinely caring about people (consumers), to which DSM technical and marketing and application manager Dr Swen Wolfram retorted: “If we didn’t care about consumers we would go out of business. We need to be in alignment with consumers to show them good choices.”

“Inauthentic brands will quickly be found out.”

“a little like an elephant trying to tap dance on ice.”

Chicago-based Corvus Blue food analyst and scientist Kantha Shelke, PhD, likened big food company efforts at staying abreast of change as, “a little like an elephant trying to tap dance on ice.”

“It’s hard to be big in the food industry,” ​she said. “If you launch a new healthy food do you then admit the former food was unhealthy? How do you keep your consumer base?”

With attention moving into social media spheres, the means of communicating change was also shifting, and firms had not always understood this.

Stakeholder stir: Governments,  Big Food, start-ups

“You can’t just scrap everything.”

UK-based Stylus food analyst Mandy Saven called this “incremental innovation”. ​She said nutrition gatekeepers of the future could be supermarkets check-outs that may know individual nutrient rations and limit purchases accordingly. “We will be constrained by the very institutions we visit.”

BASF’s Scheffler noted there was more food to go around than ever before. “The food chain is required,” ​ he said. “You can’t just scrap everything.”

Scheffler challenged the idea pharma and food sectors were opposed because the pharma sector dealt in making sick people better, whereas food had the potential to prevent them getting sick in the first place. “Pharma and food need to change together.”

Water scarcity, GM foods and industrial versus organic produce were all aired as key issues, even crisis issues, especially in the case of water quality and abundance.

Getting these and other messages across to people in an information-overloaded world was seen as a major challenge and one that social media and constant connectivity was both creating and potentially solving.

As Stephen Woodford, chair at UK strategist Lexis, noted in a presentation exploring the fusion of data and content where 'earned content' such as independent journalism had the most value, the power of a well told story remained, even if the form has shifted radically from the printed page to a plethora of mobile and stable screens.

Disruptive technologies

Loren Israelsen, chief of the Utah-based but international-oriented United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) said nutrigenomics – in essence nutrition matched to individual genetics – was set to broach the mainstream at a speed that would startle industry and consumers and baffle regulators.

Converging and disruptive technologies to economically gather and utilise genetic data via mobile devices meant the time had arrived for an idea long thought to have the potential to revolutionise nutrition and positively impact burgeoning national healthcare bills.

He said combined genetic data of millions or billions of individuals and its relation to nutrition could be, “the best data set ever”.

“Regulators will lose control of this,” ​Israelsen said. “If you have a smartphone you are in the game.This is the most powerful health trend in my 30 years in the industry.”

There was much more and some of it will be published on WRBM news sites in the coming days and weeks.

Food Vision was broad in sweep to match the vast global food, supplements and ingredients industries. It’s launching in Chicago on October 27-29​ and Asia awaits in 2016.

It would appear we are living in interesting times. See you at future events.

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