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#foodporn and futures

Shuya Gong
Jan 5, 2016 · 7 min read

I’m back at IDEO this blustery Boston winter, working with something more…palatable for the average Joe. It’s absolutely thrilling to be back and after a day 1, in true IDEO style, we’ve seriously done a deep dive into our topic for the next three weeks: food.

What’s IDEO doing in this space? True, food is something we’ve dealt with since the beginning of human time, fighting mother nature to coax it out of the earth until it evolved into an art form that we now have a love-hate relationship with. But just because we’re familiar with something does not mean we understand it and at this point in human history, we probably know less about the food we eat than we ever did. Food has become, for many of us, a problematic fav.

We are quick to blame it on the big box stores selling us a bunch of crap, or on companies like Monsanto that grow it, but maybe we are really deflecting the blame from the culture that we have developed around food.

There are currently 77 million posts on Instagram hashtagged #foodporn right now and sharing a quick Insta is the millennial pre-meal ritual in place of saying grace.

The importance of sharing that perfectly arranged plate of food with friends (over social media, not gastronomically) reflects our cultural obsession with beautiful food. While the importance of aesthetics does not escape me, we have gone too far. The allure of a perfectly shaped, honey sweet, audibly crisp Fuji apple with a blush of pink sitting in the grocery store is stronger than a slightly bruised, malformed Fuji still hanging on the tree.

Take a quick gander at how long that Fuji apple has been away from the tree. 2 months, you say? 3 in the off seasons? 14, my friends. 14 months. That is not a typo. How? Preservatives you can even pronounce and a healthy dose of temperature control. Side effects? That apple (that I know you pat yourself on the back for because it’s supposed to be healthy) is stripped of all nutrients and is now just sugars and fiber. But how would you know that? All you have to go off of is what the little label at the supermarket says. You have no idea the story of your food before that. And does it matter to you? We like our food to be pretty (gotta use that #nofilter, right?). But that’s a little bit ridiculous…its like if we voted for our politicians based on their People’s 100 Hot List instead of their policies. Turns out the stickers and labels on our food can be more misleading than our most vague heads of state.

I never fully appreciated how lucky I am to live in a household where, for the most part, we grow our own vegetables and know exactly where it comes from when we dish it up. My father came from farming stock and even though we live in the middle of the city, what little backyardage is arable in the city of Chicago is filled with radishes and cabbage, eggplant and yes, even a chicken run.

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Papa Gong not only dabbles in urban agriculture but is also a doctor of western and eastern medicine and dinner conversations often centered around the health benefits that the foods we were eating had. To him, food is fuel, it is medicine, and it keeps our bodies well functioning. There was no such thing as healthy food and unhealthy food, all food should be healthy and make you feel good.

Feel good food? You mean like rice cakes and kale chips and things that are healthy so I pat myself on the back and logic out that if I shove a Snickers bar in my mouth later it totally cancels out? No. I’m talking about how food makes you feel, physically and emotionally, from an instinctual human level.

We were lucky enough to have Adam Melonas, an internationally acclaimed chef and founder of Chew, a food innovation lab, to kick off our learning session. The claim that sit down dinners promoting good ole family values and healthy eating habits all stem from an elaborate marketing scheme was jarring to hear, especially from a man who makes a living bringing people together to eat. What we’ve effectively done is strip food of the power to make us feel holistically, turning the attention to branding and gimmicks to affect how we feel on a surface level.

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Food is intimately related to how much energy we have, how dry our skin feels, the coating of our tongue, how alert our eyes are. It changes our serotonin levels and chemical make ups of our blood stream. It is a mood altering drug.

But why does a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup just taste so damn good if its so bad for me? Because the sugar and peanuts and greasy goodness that binds it all together is a familiar flavor and evolutionarily, we’re programmed to enjoy flavors that are familiar. Why are we programmed to enjoy cheap sugars over celery? According to Terry Reineccius, Food Product Development Group Manager at Target, we inherit a generation of flavors and we are currently stuck in a heavy, calorie dense one.

This palate rut is further deepened by the media and psychological messages that we start attaching to food. But while indulgent foods give you instant gratification, we’ve also been cultured such that following IG, guilt is triggered and we immediately feel bad about what we’ve just eaten. And to remedy this, we vow to shop only healthy foods from now on.

Cue stores with processed food aisles marked “Organic” or “Healthy Choices”, where you feel justified in eating a $4.99 bag of potato chips because its organic USDA certified potatoes and pure sea salt and Spanish extra virgin olive oil and you feel super healthy after polishing off the whole thing and justified with the 500% markup. Because it was healthy, right? But a week later you still struggle to fit in your favorite jeans and you wonder what went wrong. I’ll bet you right now that your bag of gourmet, “healthy” potato chips have the same nutrition panel as a 99 cent bag of Frito Lays, but we feel so much better eating something from the “healthy” aisle. The packaging screams health benefits so it must be good for you!

Honey, it’s still a damn bag of potato chips.

Cue applause; you’ve upped the price ceiling on “healthy food” through packaging and perfect pricing, and made a safe space in grocery stores, effectively promoting sales. That’s fine, turning healthy eating into a trendy thing to do, making eating off the dollar menu a sin, but also introduces the notion that healthan internationally acclaimed chefy food is an expensive lifestyle. @HBS, you’ve got a case study waiting for you.

The truth of the matter is that the rich can afford to be healthy. The poor cannot afford to not be.

Everyone should have the right to eat healthy food, to know what they’re eating, and to have an understanding of what we put in our bodies. We deserve to know the truth about our food, we deserve to know its origins, nutrients, context, processing. We deserve radical transparency.

What is IDEO doing in this space? Changing the game, as always. But this is the Food + Future coLAB and that lil’ co stands for a lot. Mainly, we’re working with Target and MIT Media Lab to wrap technology and innovation and disrupt what you know about your food. Sometimes it’ll be cutting edge tech, sometimes its old-fashioned, but we’re bridging food tech and real value-adds to what we all eat.

Still though, it’s food. Why is this so exciting and different than anything else that has ever happened before? Every small food start up steals away from large corporation food market share, the government is always looking out for policies about food, the grassroots movement is growing. What are we bringing that is new to this space? The collaboration and the partners. We’re designing ventures, we’re creating meaningful experiences, and we’re pushing for valuable ones that disrupt the current relationship we all have with food. Venture design starts with human centered design but we’re still trying to push things to market and in the end, economies of scale and market penetration matter. Even though in the food space big box stores get a lot of flak, they have a large following and channels for distribution. We’re eating with the “enemy” and trying some cool stuff out. That’s where Target (and hopefully a lot more players) are coming in.

The value of a product isn’t just the end result you get. It’s the expertise and research and confidence that backs it, and that’s why these next three weeks are such a valuable exploration. That’s why were going back to something as basic as food.

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We’re already hard at work. The post its are out and we got right down and dirty with it. So follow along on the adventure as we explore what the hell we’re putting in our bodies. Come for the #foodporn (because there will be good eats) and for the inspiration as we craft the future of food.

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The day kicked off with a challenge: Re-Present Your Food. Of course in true IDEO style, we broke the rules and played with our food.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by a Food + Future coLAB Fellow to share their concepts and experiences from the first week of our January 2016 program, focused on the theme of Understanding. For more information, please visit foodfuturecolab.com/understanding.

Shuya Gong

Written by

Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Harvard 2017. Percussionist, mechanical engineering, design. @ohmygong

Food + Future

Food + Future was a collaboration between Target, IDEO, and the MIT Media Lab that explored the future of food transparency and trust. It closed its doors in June 2017, but its thinking lives on here.

Shuya Gong

Written by

Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Harvard 2017. Percussionist, mechanical engineering, design. @ohmygong

Food + Future

Food + Future was a collaboration between Target, IDEO, and the MIT Media Lab that explored the future of food transparency and trust. It closed its doors in June 2017, but its thinking lives on here.

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