Winning Hearts, Minds, and Stomachs: The Changing Diet of the Future

What did you choose to eat for dinner last night? While the question might be simple, your answer masks a large and complex global food system made up of farms, processors, brands, retailers, and food services that all work together to get food on your plate.

In May, Forum for the Future hosted our third Futures Salon at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, New York, to examine the ways our diets are changing, and what this means what and how we will eat in the future. Our Futures Salons are a series of events in the USA that explore areas of high change potential — areas that are set to transform profoundly with deep ramifications for society and the environment — with our network.

Changing diets reflect wider transformation

We don’t have to look very far into the past to see radical change in what we eat. For example, over the latter decades of the 20th century, sushi went from being considered fairly unappealing to most in the USA (raw fish?!) to a mainstream food sold in supermarkets nationwide. In part, ‘fringe’ foods do come to the fore as a result of food fads. However, these fads are enabled by a complex and ever-evolving global supply chain. It was new technologies and efficiencies in the global delivery network and cold chain that created a system in which people in, say, Kansas can get fresh sushi whenever they want to.

In recent years, there has been an exciting explosion of new ingredients and new products. Product formulations meet changing demands on food and with a wider, stronger call for more sustainable nutritional options there has been a growth in plant-based alternatives: Just Mayo substitutes pea protein for eggs used in mayonnaise, and Impossible Foods’ plant burger purportedly has the same ‘mouthfeel’ of meat. Two intriguing emerging ingredients are insects and algae, currently seen as unappetizing — just as sushi was, just 30 years ago. They are certainly more sustainable, but have yet to gain mainstream acceptance.

New production methods also have the potential to disrupt the system. German nursing homes are piloting 3D printing technology to provide food to residents that looks like the foods they are used to. Changing values — for example, the desire for convenience — could further enable 3D printing as well as encourage new products, such as Soylent, that cut down on food preparation and consumption times.

Sustainability, business and taste

The salon featured three guest speakers who built on these food trends and talked about the future of food in the context of three lenses: sustainability, business, and taste.

Slow Food USA’s Megan Larmer spoke about the issue of equitable distribution. She made the point that we can — and do currently — have enough sustainably produced food to feed everyone. The problem, she argued, lies in our broken distribution systems, which result in massive waste.

Bruce Friedrich spoke about how organizations like the Good Food Institute are investing in cultured meat and plant-based alternatives to traditional animal products including meat, eggs, and dairy. He views alternatives to animal products as not just better for human health and the environment, but also for the bottom line. They are often cheaper for companies to use in product formulation, and thus make good economic sense.

However, while cost, health and environmental factors are important, ultimately many of our food choices come down to culture and taste. Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli spoke about the importance of taste memories and nostalgia. Many people come to delis craving a taste that will take them back to a specific time and place. It is important to acknowledge that food is a lived, multisensory experience that needs to engage people on many levels in order to be appealing.

Having set the scene in terms of emerging trends and lens through which to analyse changing diets, participants broke into four teams to design the “Dinner Plate of the Future” — from restaurant meals, to prepared foods and weeknight dinners. They included creative elements such as local sourcing, 3D printing, and cultured meats in their final designs, which were judged by the three panelists.

Crucially — as this Salon was all about food — participants also got to sample unique new formulations provided by five companies at the cutting edge of dietary evolution: algae-derived Thrive oil by TerraVia; eggless mayo from Hampton Creek; cricket protein bars from Exo; pea-protein enriched peanut butter by Better Beast; and locally made Yerba Mate tea from Brooklyn Mate.

Participants left with thoughts about what they want to keep in the current food system (taste memories), what they could do without (food waste) and how the conversations will help to inform some of Forum for the Future’s projects in the food system — like the Protein Challenge 2040.

The dinner plate of the future?

If, like us, you’re curious about what your future diet will look like, stay tuned for more articles exploring the ‘Dinner Plate of the Future’ that our Salon participants created. This Futures Salon simply marked the beginning of more Forum explorations around the future of food, so keep an eye out for more innovative content on this topic.

Originally published at