The Future of Food

Dr. Irwin Adam wants to personalize what you eat

By James Leftwich

If you use Instagram, then you’ve probably seen more than a few photos of the millennial pink rooms and famous Sprinkle Pool in @museumoficecream. Dr. Irwin Adam helped create this immersive food-meets-interactive art phenomenon that’s popped up in New York, Los Angeles, and now San Francisco. Dr. Adam oversaw the Museum of Ice Cream’s Future of Food component, where guests could sample lab-created foods like candies that turn your sour taste buds into sweet ones, and unusual flavours of ice cream.

Most of Dr. Adam’s current work is around strategizing what the future of food looks like—but when we say future, we aren’t talking about decades. Dr. Adam’s work with corporate clients in the food and tech industries are making these awe-inspiring creations a possibility within a matter of a few years, a few months and even right now. “My work is often about identifying prospective futures in the food industry,” Dr. Adam says. “Anything from what’s on trend for food products, to large scale possibilities like global supply chains and how technology is integrated within agriculture. My work touches on every single part of food.” While there is a lot of science and work with technology involved, Dr. Adam says that a lot of his ability to help other companies through innovation is by just being creative and thinking about what could be possible. Dr. Adam says that often technology from other industries is brought into the food industry, but that there are opportunities to develop technology specifically for the food experience that can enhance it in even more incredible ways.

“It’s about transforming food. We want to challenge people’s perceptions about what the role of food is, the same way artificial intelligence or automation is challenging other industries and ways of doing things. We have some more abstract projects like, what happens if we use data from our senses of taste and smell in order to quantify the world around us?”

Dr. Adam thinks that quantifying taste and flavour would help develop flavour profiles and personalized foods. “Part of the future of food will be food that is designed for you, based on your physiology and what you actually need from a health and nutrition perspective.”

Dr. Adam explains that “personalized food” is the opposite of how consumers typically make decisions about prepared goods: you might buy food based on the way it appeals to your senses, such as for its colour, flavour combination of ingredients, or its packaging or presentation.

“Those choices are not quantitative decisions, they’re not based on real outcomes, they’re based on your emotions and your feelings. It doesn’t necessarily even taste good. So you’re spending a lot of money, and you don’t really know what the impact is of this thing you’re consuming. In a world of personalized food, you have monitoring devices continually assessing your current state and your physiology and telling you what you should be consuming, and consumers can actually understand the impact of the thingsthey’re eating. If you’re deficient in Vitamin B12, a device could tell you, ‘hey, you should eat this, because it’ll top you up’.”

The future of personalized food has possibilities for producers as well as consumers—different methods of growing and producing food can change its nutritional and flavour profiles, so foods can be developed to suit individual preference. (The future of food is looking a little like Willy Wonka’s workshop.)

At SingularityU Canada Summit, Dr. Adam will host a workshop around personalized food. Dr. Adam will also be discussing how technology is evolving to accommodate challenges to global food production. Dr. Adam thinks that the immediate and long-term effects of climate change, some of which we might not have predicted yet, will require people to make some “extreme shifts” in the way that we eat, and this will require dramatic changes and disruption to the way food is grown, produced, and potentially even consumed.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to global climate change, and we’re in a position where we need to basically change the way we’re producing food in order to be both sustainable—in the sense that we need to have a planet that we can continue to grow food on—but also be able to grow sufficient food for people,” Dr. Adam says. “There have been some changes to grow food better, like growing food organically, but most of those changes have been around growing the type of food that we are familiar with today.”

The food of the future might not taste like or resemble the foods you’re familiar with today, but Dr. Adam is committed to ensuring that while the way food is produced is disrupted, nutrition and flavor will not be.

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