Technology and food are strange bedfellows. Pairing the two conjures up the "frankenfood" term used to describe genetically modified products, but not all progressive food tech wants to change our meals at the genetic level. New innovations are upending what we eat, how we prepare dishes, and how farmers grow our food.
Give my compliments to the computer
One of the latest changes brought to the food industry is in the creation of new dishes -- suggested by computers. The IBM(NYSE:IBM)Watson computer -- of Jeopardy fame -- has worked alongside chefs to create new dishes and ingredient pairings people never considered. It is called cognitive cooking, and Watson has teamed up with Bon Appetit magazine and the Institute of Culinary Education to test out its ideas.
"The idea of cognitive cooking is machines and humans working together -- in this case, a very complex analytic system drawing from the vast collected knowledge of chemistry, food culture, and taste preferences to help chefs break new ground," Mahmoud Naghshineh of IBM told the Institute of Culinary Education.
Late last year, IBM released a mobile app for home cooks that allows them to tap into Watson and make meals based on what the supercomputer suggests. Watson does not cook the food, of course, and it does not know how much to proportion the ingredients but rather searches through thousands of food items and uses its algorithms to find chemically compatible and surprising ingredient pairings. Cooks give Watson a few basic parameters like an initial ingredient and style of cooking, and Watson suggests the rest.
Why cook when you can print?
If handing over your next dinner party to the whims of computer-suggested dishes is not your thing, then perhaps 3D printed food might be better for your guests.
3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) has a line of ChefJet printers that make sugary treats, and the company recently unveiled a chocolate-printing machine, called the CocoJet, in partnership with Hershey, at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. Users can upload their own chocolate designs to the printer and select dark, white, or milk chocolate.
But edible 3D printing does not stop at chocolate. A machine called the Foodini, made by Natural Machines, uses food cartridges to create ready-to-cook foods like pizza, pasta, and hamburgers.
We are still a little ways away from these 3D printers preparing our every meal and snack, but we are clearly pushing the boundaries of what is possible with this technology.
Keeping the bugs at bay
Some of the most revolutionary food innovations are happening before our meal even hits the plate. The Internet of Things -- where previously unconnected things are brought online -- is changing how farmers protect food as it is grown.
A company called Semios uses boxes equipped with cameras, sensors, and cellular connections to monitor pests in orchards. When the populations grow too large, farmers are alerted via mobile notifications and then remotely schedule the boxes to release pheromones to confuse the mating practices of the bugs.
Using this technology not only makes it more convenient to protect food on the farm, but it also helps reduce the amount of pesticides used. In addition to fending off harmful pests, Semios uses its sensors to monitor frost, soil moisture, and how wet its fruit tree leaves are.
Creating more food with the help of technology
Possibly one of the most transformational technologies in the food industry right now is called precision agriculture -- and it is enabling farmers to yield more crops than ever before.
Agricultural powerhouse Monsanto (NYSE:MON) uses a software system called FieldScripts to analyze farm fields, climate, and weather to not only predict how much yield will come from the soil, but to also calculate the best way to maximize the yield.
Using an app called FieldView, paired with GPS, farmers are shown where to add more seed in order to increase yield in specific areas, while planting less on acres that are less likely to create large yields.
A recent TechReport article noted that precision agriculture can boost yield by 16%, increase water efficiency by 50%, and has the potential to double food production by 2050.
You'll never eat the same again
Pairing technology with food seems like an odd combination, but companies are clearly already using tech to transform the way we eat -- and it is not likely to slow down. 3D-printed chocolates aside, new technology will help meet future food demands. By 2050, there will be two billion more people on the planet that need to eat, and using creative ways to increase food production and fight pests will be more important than ever.
Just as with any new innovation, there is plenty of room for improvement, and not everything will catch on. But the companies creating these technologies are entering a new era of food innovation, and in the long run, that should be a very good thing for the companies, their investors, and anyone who likes to eat.