Personalization of food and diet is part of a clear trend towards increasing consumer empowerment on the backdrop of overall mistrust towards agricultural production processes, because of the use of plant protection products (pesticides) or GMOs and the industrial processing of food, the use of additives, dyes, preservatives, etc. Consumers are slowly retaking control over what they had outsourced to the food industry. This tendency is supported by a number of innovative tools, particularly digital ones, allowing users to design their food by themselves, with a better “control” on the way they eat.
This has led Christophe Breuillet, Director of the Taste-Nutrition-Health Competitiveness Cluster of Vitagora, to use the term “prosumer,” a contraction of consumer and producer, to describe people “who run these micro-food factories at home.” Dorothy Goffin, Director of Smart Gastronomy Lab in University of Liège said that “emerging technologies will allow us to take back control on our food” and, thanks to 3D printers, “our kitchens will become Fab Labs.”
The first type of innovation that promote consumer empowerment is relative to “quantified self,” a movement that appeared in the USA in 2010 following the publication in The New York Times of a manifesto, “The Data-Driven Life,” written by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf. This is about the quantitative measurement and systematic analysis of the personal data of our own body (nutritional needs, deficiencies or caloric expenditure) via connected devices and mobile applications. Based on this data, these increasingly numerous objects issue recommendations to their users via their smartphone or digital tablet.
In addition to connected watches, it is worth mentioning the Airo connected bracelet project which focuses on measuring consumed calories and the WearSens connected collar developed by UCLA to assess the nutritional behavior of its bearer and vibrates to make them stop eating once enough food has been ingested. Connected scales are also becoming increasingly common. The HAPI scale of the Hapilabs firm measures both weight and body mass index (BMI) and sends the collected data to a mobile application. Designed by a French company that was acquired in 2016 by the Nokia group, the Withings scale can track the evolution of fat, muscle, bone and water mass. Terraillon also offers its own WiFi scale called Web Coach. However, the most amazing innovation in this field is probably the BitBite connected headset, developed by the company of the same name. It acts as a “coach” to help users eat healthier and lose weight. BitBite assesses what and how users eat (nutritional habits, time, speed of chewing or hydration). It analyzes the data and sends personalized dietary recommendations via a smartphone headset or application.
Other innovations provide consumers with information on the food they eat or the way they eat it. These aim crockery, cutlery or tools which are now connected for the most part, even if they are not sold today. Thus, the connected smart plate allows you to identify, analyze and weigh food via integrated cameras and sensors that measure the ingested calories. The information is then transmitted to a mobile application. Electrolux is developing a project of a smart knife with integrated sensors and a touchscreen. The device provides information on the composition, nutrients, calories, nutritional intakes, bacteria and freshness of food. In addition, it can help extend the latter by the emission of negative ions. Hapilabs is currently developing a connected fork project called Hapifork which vibrates when the user is eating too quickly. Chinese firm Moikit is developing a connected bottle called Moikit Seed which assesses the daily water consumption of the user, as well as the quality of the water. For instance, it can vibrate to remind him that he hasn’t drunk enough. There are several other similar projects of connected bottles such as BluFit, HidrateSpark or H2O Pal. The Hug is a sensor that can be positioned on any bottle to measure its hydration.
Among other daily connected objects, it is worth mentioning the connected Smart Cup from Linkoo Technologies, that monitors daily water consumption; iKettle, a connected kettle from Smarter; connected coffee makers such as Smart Coffeemaker from Mr Coffee or Smarter Coffee from Smarter; a connected pot or food storage box: Neo from Canadian company Smart Kitchen Ecosystem Labs reminds users what is stored inside and provides recipes accordingly, as well as information on calories, proteins or carbohydrates; connected kitchen scales such as SituScale from Situ measure the weight and assess the caloric and nutritional content of food (salt, sugar or fat); NutriTab from Terraillon, which the company refers to as a “nutritional scale” or the Drop Scale from Irish firm Drop.
Finally, handheld scanners can assess both food or dish and provide information on its composition through a smartphone application, in a few seconds. Several companies are developing this type of projects: Canadian company TellSpec http://tellspec.com/ or Consumer Physics with its DietSensor. The Nima scanner (ex-6sensorlabs) is equipped with sensors designed to identify the presence of allergens (only gluten, for now) in food. For this, users simply insert a food sample in a capsule and screw it to the Nima sensor. The test takes a few minutes and indicates the presence or absence of gluten.
In the field of nutrition, the “prosumer” seems to have become a reality. In France, the launch of La Marque du consommateur in 2016 attests to this new reality. This was the first brand of mainstream consumer products created by consumers themselves, based on their own requirements. Some 7,000 surfers answered to a survey concerning the norms they would like to follow for the production of one liter of semi-skimmed milk: remuneration of producers, origin of the milk (France or not), grazing (yes or no), feeding of cows (with GMOs, alfalfa, favoring Omega-3 in milk), origin of the fodder and packaging. For each response made by the consumer, the corresponding milk price is displayed on the screen. Based on these responses, a specification has been established and “La Marque du consommateur” (The Consumer’s Brand) collective tries to find producers who met these criteria, as well as distributors. The launch of the first “consumer milk” since October 2016 has been very successful. This “brand” also sells apple juice and pizza and other products should follow in the future. In a way, it is a form of authorization by the consumers themselves to market the specified products.
A number of technological innovations could also support the prosumers’ thirst for autonomy, including in terms of “agricultural” production. Philips offers a domestic autonomous ecological farm called Biosphere Home Farming. It’s a sort of vertical indoor farm that works as a self-sustaining autonomous ecosystem with plants that fix carbon, algae that filter water and provide oxygen to fish or even lighting supplied by the methane generated by the decomposition of organic waste. This also applies to the processing of agricultural raw materials with “smart” appliances: some products, such as connected robots or multifunction cookers, already have great success. 3D food printers also rise many expectations. 3D food printing consists in applying 3D printing technology to “manufacturing” food from basic ingredients into capsules, powder or liquid form. Cartridges are composed of ingredients that are assembled during printing to “recreate,” or indeed even create, food. The printer heats the ingredients which are deposited layer by layer before cooling down and solidifying. At this stage, 3D food printers do not cook printed food.
Several companies are developing 3D printer projects but, as of today, none have hit the market. The Foodini printer, from Spanish company Natural Machines, is a striking example of a printer designed for private users. It contains five capsules of stainless steel that can be washed and reused. Users insert fresh or prepared products in these capsules. Natural Machines doesn’t provide ingredients for the capsules to avoid putting additives or chemicals to preserve food. Users then chose the ingredients on a touch screen and launch the print. They can print sweets, cakes, pizzas, pasta and snacks. They can also access recipes. The printer can be programmed using a computer, tablet or smartphone. It doesn’t cook food. Users must cook the 3D printed food separately. Other printers for private individuals can make sweets and chocolates with sugar and chocolate powder (Chef Jet from US-based company 3D Systems ) or sweets from cartridges of colored and flavored liquid that taste like fruit (Nu Food Robot from British company Nu Food).
3D food printers offer a wide range of functions: making food for people who have problems chewing and swallowing (such as seniors); preparing food in specific situations (airlines) or extreme environments (outer space, war zones, humanitarian operations); creating new food products; improving the presentation of some ingredients (insects, micro-algae), etc. In any case, they are a constituent part of consumers’ wish to reclaim the preparation of their own food. Lynette Kucsma, co-founder of Natural Machines, also considers that these printers will allow to do at home what manufacturers do in a factory, but without the additives and dyes, and controlling the dosage and quantity. Dorothée Goffin concludes that with these printers “you can produce a cookie with the shape of a diplodocus, gluten-free, palm oil-free, and low in sugar for your child’s birthday,” in other words, a completely personalized and autonomous food product, “impossible to find in stores.”