Feeding burgeoning populations means tomorrow’s inevitable processed edibles will need to be tastier.
Predicting the future of food technology is not easy. Who could have thought in 2004 that so many kitchens would sport a coffee machine in 2014? The future of food and the technology that makes it are inextricable. In today's urban world technology maketh the food and the technologies to come next depend on what the consumer wants next.
One thing has become clear about modern consumer trends though - they bifurcate, they split, they contradict. More and more people want convenience; but those same people are spending more time in the weekend at "real" cooking. More people want food that is healthy, high fibre and good for you; but those same people are driving higher sales in gourmet ice-cream, coffee and chocolate.
And trends fool you. More voices are raised against sugary soft drinks, but colas have been in near-terminal decline for a decade. We see coffee and energy drink consumption rising yet the total consumption of caffeine is in decline. We worry about processed foods and long lists of E-numbers but for 10 years new supermarket product listings in the United States have been dominated by lighter this, less that and free of the other.
The industry has pulled huge amounts of salt and sugar out of food but are fearful that consumers will see "low-salt" or "reduced sugar" as meaning "reduced flavour". But at the same time, the confectionery aisles are getting larger. Our most trusted brands are confectionery brands. Healthy food offerings are there and growing so why do we put so much sugar and fat in our trolleys?
The biggest single driver in the future is population. There will be billions more people on the planet in a generation or two. And they will largely be living in cities, so their food will need to be preserved and transported to them - it will be processed. Animal protein, so inefficient to produce, will be expensive as agricultural land and water get scarce. Places like New Zealand, if we are smart, won't be selling bulk dairy and meat protein but the means by which others can extend their vegetable proteins. We will sell them nutrition and flavour and binding properties.
I hope that in 25 years' time we don't sell just red meat but "New World Meats" in just the way we developed a whole industry around "New World Wines" (wines produced outside the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe and Middle East). It will take a group like today's winemakers to foment this revolution.
Our New World Meats would have the flavour intensity and textures of French charcuterie, Iberian or Parma ham, Bulgarian salami and German wurst but be lower in sodium and nitrite. It will use new technologies and great "NZ Inc" marketing. New World Meats will be celebrations of New Zealand, grown in park-like farms and forests, processed in modern factories yet with an artisan image. Tomorrow's healthy diner will have smaller amounts of red meat but more richly flavoured by mixtures of old-fashioned fermentation and modern treatments. Kiwis will become connoisseurs of preserved meats loved across Asia.
But don't expect to see test-tube steaks any time soon. Large scale cell culture still needs vatloads of growth factors and hormones, many of which come only from killing animals. Until a large synthetic growth factor industry grows to support pharmaceutics I can't see muscle tissue culture for food being more than an expensive novelty for the rich.
And will we see 3D food printing in our kitchens? One day inevitably yes - no technology as simple and ubiquitous as 3D printing escapes being recruited to food manufacture. But the secret: don't expect inside 100 years that you can make a good analogue of a familiar food. Instead, the printer will make foods that don't exist yet, that don't have names yet. And it will make food that you design, conceive, name and perhaps sell.
Predictions for food technology
More of our food will be processed but the processing will be gentler with fewer ingredients.
More ready-to-eat, factory-prepared meals, some shipped around the world for institutional meals. New Zealand will have 5 per cent of the world market using robotic assembly in near sterile rooms.
More plant protein will be used to simulate the meats we love but with meat used to round out nutrition and provide flavour. We have the technologies half developed already.
Insects and algae industrially grown on waste streams as food for fish and chicken.
Technologies to make non-calorific ingredients to reduce the fattening power of foods for the rich.
Technologies to encapsulate, coat, protect and ultimately release valuable nutrients and bioactive food compounds.
More of our industrial ingredients will be unrefined, complex and richer in micronutrients but this will take serious food science and technology to regain the predictability that refined ingredients give us today.
Professor Richard Archer is head of Massey University's Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health. He will speak on this topic at a symposium celebrating Massey's 50th year of food technology education on June 30.