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Food Tech: chances and challenges

"There is no love more sincere than the love of food.”
Bernard Show

We live in the most well-fed time in human history. Today, hunger threatens only every tenth inhabitant of the planet, mainly in the regions of Asia and Africa. But 200 years ago, mass famine was a common and cyclical phenomenon on all continents. With industrialization, development of agricultural technologies, and mass production of agrochemicals, mass famine has become something of a horror story from the history books. Numerous forums discuss the problem of excess food and weight, but not the lack of food. Technology has determined how much, what and how we eat in the 21st century.

In this article, we’ll highlight five of the most important, in our opinion, food tech events of the last decades, which define our food culture now and in the future.

1. Everyone goes online

Spend time, money, and energy to get to the supermarket. Win over the parking place. Get into the supermarket oasis and race against hundreds of other sufferers. Stand in line. At the checkout, discover that the product had the wrong price all along. Hold all the packages on your way to the car. Call your wife. Realize that you forgot the shopping list at home and bought the wrong kind of milk.

Shopping offline is not for everyone, to put it mildly. Therefore, it is not surprising that the emergence of the first online stores in the 90s was just the beginning of the e-commerce boom. Online trading has become possible not only thanks to the development of the Internet but also due to the numerous data protection and secure online payment systems.

Internet Retailer agency estimates that global online sales grew steadily in 2016–2019 at an average annual rate of 20%. The main players in the global market are Amazon Fresh, Walmart, Pepsi Co, Tasty, Mondelez International, and others.

main players in the global market

The share of food in e-commerce stores highly depends on the region. In the US, estimated food online sales were at just 5.5% in 2019. This is not much compared to the sales of apparel (18.9%) or household goods (10%). Slow development of the online Food and Beverage segment is associated primarily with the complexity of the supply chain, strict requirements for the storage and delivery of food. Unlike apparel or electronics, food products have limited shelf life, they require certain temperature conditions, and it is more difficult for buyers to return such a purchase in case of problems. Many people buy groceries spontaneously while walking into the store on the way home.

proportion of US glocery spend made online

But online stores allow you to do something impossible in retail: to know every step of your customer, his preferences and habits. Many retailers, at the stage of registering a new buyer, offer to take a small survey which significantly increases the conversion. For example, based on previous purchases and personal data, customers with children are immediately offered baby food. Vegetarians will not see meat among the products and people with nut allergies will not accidentally buy chocolate with peanuts.

It was retail chains with online stores that became the winning sellers in 2020. People in quarantine refused to buy new pants, but didn’t deny their favorite food. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that we began to order and eat even more in quarantine than before. Business Research estimates that food sales will grow to $ 22.4 billion in 2020 (up from $ 14.9 billion in 2019).

An important food tech trend in 2020 was the opening of online cafes and restaurants with the option of contactless delivery. Of course, the delivery of delicious pasta does not replace the dinner in your favorite Italian restaurant. But in conditions where you can only walk within a radius of 20 meters from your home, the opportunity to order dishes from your favorite chef is a good way to keep at least a part of your usual life.

Having an online store has already become a superpower and an advantage of numerous retail chains and restaurants. Probably, the trend to go online will continue. In the end, it saves not only the buyer's time but also the retailer's money for rent, salespeople, consultants, and merchandisers.

3 key online shopping statistics

2. Popular ratings

Word of mouth has always been one of the most powerful tools for acquiring new customers. What would you believe more: the next commercial of the tea of ​​your dreams, even if Henry Cavill himself drinks it, or the enthusiastic tea stories from your friend?

This does not mean that traditional advertising has stopped working at all. You are still more likely to buy a well-known product than a pig in a poke. But if a promoted product has thousands of negative ratings on the Internet and a 0.5-star rating, not a single Superman will help him.

There are hundreds of apps, websites, and blogs dedicated to a single topic — food. Two main groups can be distinguished — these are apps for evaluating products and tools for evaluating restaurants, cafes, and street food.

Among the applications for evaluating products, these are the ones worth noting:

1. Scanam — a mobile scanner for assessing the composition of products.

2. Food-rate allows you to get all reviews for a product using a scanned barcode, and compare it with similar products. In similar applications, you can also compare the price in different supermarket chains or find a product on stock.

3. Samsung Health — helps you track calories of food and prevents you from buying all the sweets in the store.

4. Hello Vino will help you choose wine for any occasion: as a gift for the big boss, for a budget picnic with friends, or for a romantic evening.

5. Foody can create an automatic shopping list from recipes. Similar applications also have a food calendar function — your smartphone reminds you that it's time to buy fruit and bread.

Smart refrigerators can install an application to assess what will soon irrevocably deteriorate, what products are missing, and where they can be purchased.

Another trend in recent years is sustainable, smart consumption. Applications allow you not only to find out where the potatoes for your pack of Lays came from, but also how much resources were spent on it. The traceability of the product life cycle is not only +100 to customer confidence, but also a clear control of the entire supply chain.

3. Robots, robots everywhere

Discovery program "How does it work?" has been on air for almost 20 years now. The robotization of production is commonplace, but no less interesting because of this. In ordinary life, we give little thought to how the right or left Twix stick is made. There is no difference: they are made on the same robotic automatic complex.

The trend of the recent years is the automation of not only production but also the final operations for quality control, packaging, and sorting. Robot manipulators are installed on conveyor belts, which, using computer vision, can determine the color, readiness, and shape of the product. Because of recent pandemic events, ads like “hand made and packed with love” are more likely to scare away the buyer than to attract them. In the far before-COVID times, forecasts for the collaborative robot market were + 40% growth per year. Adjusted for the increased automation trend, many analytical agencies are giving + 50% growth annually now.

global collaborative robots market

Why collaborative robots? They are compact, easy to install, easy to reprogram, mobile. They can be quickly moved and reinstalled. And most importantly, they are safe. Several international safety standards have been developed for collaborative robots: in terms of speed, weight, and braking system.

Why it matters:
- To install such a robot, you do not need to change the construction of the conveyor, you do not need to install expensive protective cages.
- Such robots can be placed near human employees. A person does one part of the work — a robot does the other. Isaac Asimov's dreams came true.
- Industrial robots of the first generation can be compared tothe first computers. They are heavy, cumbersome, and require years of learning to operate. The latest generation of collaborative robots is like your tablet or smartphone. You don't need to be a programmer to work with them.

But more importantly, robots are finally emerging from the production blind spot and entering our daily life.

At Rozum Café, a robot barista prepares a latte in just a few minutes.

robotic cafe
Source: Rozum Café


The robot at Zume's pizzeria on wheels will cook and serve you pepperoni.

robot pizzeria
Source: Zume


A robot waiter in a Tokyo cafe will bring your order.

robot waiter

Robots are no longer inaccessible and incomprehensible. You don't need to watch Discovery, you just go to the nearest robotic coffee shop. Again, COVID19 has opened doors for robotics to spheres that previously seemed untouchable.

4. Less plastic

Plastic pollution is a disaster that has been written and said a lot about. But words are Greta Thunberg's domain. We are more interested in the projects of guys like Boyan Slat.

In food production, the topic of plastic is more relevant than ever. Firstly, the EU has passed a law banning disposable tableware by 2021, as well as reducing plastic packaging. Secondly, along with environmental pollution, they are increasingly talking about the harm of microplastic particles to health.

Particles less than 5 mm are considered to be microplastics. They end up in sewage, lakes, rivers, and oceans. This triggers the cycle of plastic not only in the world's water system but also in food webs. According to some studies, microplastics can accumulate in the tissues of living organisms; also, the dyes that are part of the composition can seriously affect organs.

how microplastic could end up on a consumer's plate

The effect of microplastics on the human body has not yet been thoroughly studied: the mass production of plastic is less than 100 years old. But its concentration in the world is growing exponentially — that's a fact. The ingestion of plastic with impurities of dyes in food can become a factor for a whole bunch of diseases: from allergic reactions to problems with the digestive system. Separate scientific journals have published discussions about the effect of microplastics on cancer development.

Therefore, startups developing alternative materials for packaging are now in the focus of attention not only for private investors, but also for the public sector, medicine, and eco-activists. Here are just a few of them:

1. Finnish startup Sulapac has developed a material based on wood chips. The manufacturer claims that this type of packaging is completely biodegradable.

2. CLEA-PL is a Russian startup based on the technology of making plastic from plant materials.

3. New Zealand's Ecoware uses vegetable starch to produce food packaging.

4. The Belgian company Biopla offers packaging solutions including those made from sugar cane.

5. The Institute of Biological Engineering Wyss of Harvard University in 2014 presented the world with the material "shrilk", developed based on chitin (the substance that makes up the outer cover of arthropods). According to scientists, the material is quite dense, tough, and completely biodegradable.

Alternative packaging materials, however, are not so simple. While most of them are claimed to be completely sustainable and biodegradable, many are a mixture of plant materials with the addition of a small amount of plastic. That it is the same plastic that was mentioned above, just in a smaller volume. If, in the case of ordinary plastic packaging, we know exactly which container to throw it into, then what to do with such "slightly plastic" bags is not entirely clear.

5. NotMeat

Vegetarians, vegans, ovo- and lacto-vegetarians have evolved in recent years from the marginalized hippie group to promoters of a new way of life. We will not delve into the moral component. The reasons, points of view, and positions are too different to try to systematize them. But what is common are the numbers. Meat production is a very expensive and very messy type of production. According to some estimates, 1/3 of the world's drinking water reserves are annually used for the needs of animal husbandry. Half of all agricultural land is pasture. In 2017, meat production reached 330 million tons. At the same time, about 20%, that is, about 66 million tons of meat cannot be sold and is just thrown away.

global land use for food production

Therefore, the production of food products with similar protein content, but a cheaper production cycle is not only a moral issue but rather an economic issue. Impossible Food, one of the largest plant-based meat producers, says it uses 95% less land and 74% less water. A study by the University of Michigan, commissioned by another industry giant, Beyond Meat, gives even more impressive numbers — a vegetable burger cutlet needs 99% less water and 93% less soil than a meat one.

what it takes to make a quarter pound hamburger

There are more and more companies and start-ups engaged in the production of "non-meat", and this is great news: the more competition, the more choice and the lower the price for the end consumer.

Another high-tech area is the artificial cultivation of animal tissues and organs. Returning to the numbers: now there are about 2 billion Christians on the Earth, one and a half billion Muslims, 500 million Buddhists, and 15 million Jews. According to some forecasts, by 2050 about 10% of the population of Europe will be Muslims, and by 2100 their share will be 35% of the non-atheistic population of the Earth.

Why are we suddenly talking about religion? Halal, Kashrut, Ahimsa, Ayurveda, Lent.

In any world religion, there is a certain system, a list of provisions and rules following which one should lead a certain lifestyle, including limiting diet. In each of these systems, there is a complete or partial ban on the consumption of meat or certain parts of animals.

Now imagine that the meat will be grown in the laboratory and it will be exactly the part that is needed? Of course, the ethical issue versus plant-based meat is still not resolved in this case. Nevertheless, artificial meat may become one of the most important areas of food tech in the coming years. And not only meat, but there are also more and more companies dealing with "fish from a test tube", "shrimp from a test tube", etc.

companies dealing with "fish from a test tube", "shrimp from a test tube"


We live in the safest time in human history. But as the old man Socrates used to say, "Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat." Therefore, the global development of food tech towards a healthy lifestyle, environmental friendliness, conscious consumption, and non-violence cannot but rejoice.

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