The Future of What’s on the American Plate: How Consumers Understand the Role of Science in Food
Many food and beverage industry analysts have misinterpreted the single biggest food trend of the past two decades, what is commonly referred to as the trend toward “all things fresh.” No doubt inspired by the pioneering work of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse as well as a wide variety of interested parties with similar motivations (Michael Pollan, Thomas Keller, etc.), many have written at length about the continued, surging interest in the inspired naturalness of fresh, authentic cuisines.
While the specific features of this trend encompass notions as diverse as fresh, organic, seasonal, local, artisanal, authentic and so forth, many have summarized the trend more generally as a shift away from “processed, packaged foods” and in the direction of that which could best be described as “the real” — that which comes from the earth, arrives with a story and has not been industrially processed or packaged.
“Always explore your garden and go to the local market before you decide what to cook” - Alice Waters
“Hopefully, imparting what’s important to me, respect for the food and that information about the purveyors, people will realize that for a restaurant to be good, so many pieces have to come together”- Thomas Keller
“The superiority of real food grown in healthy soils seems clear” - Michael Pollan
Neither chef nor food critic nor ardent fan nor consumer alike has ever taken a position against food technology per se; rather, their complaint has been against the way in which technologies have traditionally been deployed. The common complaint being, of course, that food technology was historically used to make food more affordable, reliable, shelf-stable, available and homogenous. These may seem like common sense goals until one stops to ask, “Why weren’t these technologies ever used to make food more complex, captivating, unique or interesting?”
Science and Technology in Food Culture
Today, while we see chefs, entrepreneurs and food fans alike increasingly turning to the wonders of food science and technologies to produce truly wonderful, awe-inspiring creations and higher-quality food experiences, our Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report finds that tensions exist at the cutting edge of food technology from the consumer perspective.
Americans have always had a love affair with technology. Recent decades have seen dramatic shifts in the use of science and technology in food and nutrition, from improvements in manufacturing efficiency to kitchen gadgets to knowledge of biology and ecology. Today’s consumers see food technology as both the cause of and the solution to some of the most significant challenges of our time.
The Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report focuses on the science and technology of food creation – acts of growing and making food. The race to create realistic alternatives to meat and dairy, in particular, has put food production methods in the limelight.
Meat and dairy are essential, symbolic features of American plates. Meat and dairy today are at the center of concerns around health, ethics, the environment and food processing. They have long been the symbol of the hearty, wholesome diet of a prosperous nation. As standards of living increase, so does meat and dairy consumption.
Today, however, meat and dairy’s central place in the U.S. diet faces challenges on multiple fronts, making them ripe for disruption.
Health & Wellness
Meat consumption is associated with cancer, dairy with inflammation and digestive issues; both are potentially contaminated with hormones and antibiotics.
Factory farming and its abuses have made consumers question the ethics of eating animal products; popular documentaries have eroded trust in the meat/dairy industries.
Meat and dairy production are major sources of environmental pollution and greenhouse gases.
Related to all three of the above, many consumers now see meat and dairy as highly processed but even less transparent than other processed foods.
Enter meat and dairy alternatives, a growing world of innovative, new products that claim to solve at least some of consumers’ concerns.
Meat and dairy alternatives are taking the world of packaged food by storm; consumers are both intrigued by plant-based products and finding it harder to ignore anxiety surrounding the health, ethical and environmental implications of animal products.
But manufacturers attempting to solve the problems of meat and dairy are increasingly asking consumers to confront a significant cultural tension between their desire to retain some of the experience of eating meat and dairy and their desire to eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. The best replacements are often the result of the most sophisticated scientific and technological innovation in food production — hardly consumers’ definition of “natural.”
The future of the American plate, and meat and dairy’s place there, will be determined by how consumers understand the role of science in food.
Return to the way things were or food science as a source for good?
For the most comprehensive look into the consumer understanding and acceptance of science and technology innovation in food culture today, get our Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report. LEARN MORE