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Week 7—13
May 2018

MKW18 7—13 May

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Would you trade your data to personalise your diet?

Published Fri 20 April | by James Douglas

Everyday nutrition can be a forbidding topic for most of us. But what if a microwave could help you out? Or, maybe not a microwave; something more like a combination pantry-fridge-personal-chef, serving out perfectly-portioned, balanced meals, straight off your kitchen bench. A machine that understands your body better than you do, fortifying you with iron-rich foods when your levels are low, or loading you up with carbs if you’re going for a jog.

That’s a vision that the CSIRO is now working towards: a machine that dairy scientist Dr Amy Logan says will provide foods ‘that have the right nutrient loading, the right structure, and the right delivery mechanism to meet an individual’s needs.’ The technology isn’t quite real yet, but Logan and her team, part of CSIRO’s Future Science initiative, are working backward from that ideal to figure out the steps that could get us there.

Scientists are starting to examine just what a personalised meal might be, looking at the influence of genetics on taste, smell and metabolism – things that tell us whether a diner will enjoy their dish – as well how the microstructure of food affects its digestion and its ability to deliver nutrients.

Currently, they anticipate that this hypothetical “future food generator” will derive from contemporary 3D printing technology, and they’re modelling different ingredient combinations and chemical structures that could end up constituting the final food product. Dairy proteins are in the mix, as are vegetable and meat sources, with even some insect proteins.

Image: Jasmine Fisher via Matters Journal

But there are some practical hurdles to leap, too. Those raw materials couldn’t go off, for one. ‘If you think of a 3D printer sitting in a person’s home – that food needs to be stable enough to be bought in a cartridge form and be used over an extended period of time,’ Logan says. ‘We’re looking at the best way to store it, to be in keeping with food safety requirements.’

And the printing technology needs to advance, too. Many food printers currently use nozzles to extrude and layer liquefied ingredients, a process that can yield a surprising variety of foodstuffs, from hamburgers to pizzas to pavlovas. But structurally complex foods are still off the menu: mince, yes; steak, no.

In commercial kitchens, Michelin-star chefs like Paco Perez at La Enoteca, in Barcelona, use 3D printers to produce geometrically intricate shapes that can’t be achieved by the human hand – one dish appears as a coral of seafood puree and carrot foam. But perfect plating isn’t so much of a concern for home cooks, and the domestic market for 3D food currently looks more likely to start off with printers of on-demand chocolate bonbons. Sounds perfectly indulgent, but in a more health-conscious vein, researchers are also suggesting that 3D printers today could be used to more effectively cater meals for people with swallowing disorders, or dysphagia.

How exactly the food generator will know to personalise our meals, and what information it can learn, is an open question, too. Logan sees a lot of possibilities in biosensors that you can swallow, sleep on, or even wear, which will harvest data about physiological needs. Currently, much information can be gleaned about heart rate and glucose levels, but real-time diagnosis of something like a mineral or protein deficiency is a bit further down the line.

Building out the science behind this food generator is one thing – an ambitious research journey that will likely yield many new discoveries along the way. But it’s still hard to predict the cost of it for the consumer, and not just in dollars spent. Growing angst about the security of personal information on social media platforms like Facebook suggests that users might have some qualms about releasing an intimate picture of their genetic make-up and nutritional needs, unless it’s crystal clear where those details are sent, who receives them, and how safely they are kept. Trading your data for a diet could come with some privacy concerns. Would you be prepared to pay that cost for a balanced meal? 

Header image: Jasmine Fisher via Matters Journal

Find out more about the future of food at MKW18

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