Industries in Depth

How technology will change the way we eat

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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As bloggers around the world attend the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan on the theme “Feeding the Planet”, the web is getting flooded with tweets and pictures of delicious food. Connectivity is not just to talk about food, however. Increasingly, it is helping us monitor and improve how food relates to our health. Already, health-related apps allow users to count the number of steps taken per day, track caloric intake and even participate in medical research.

Data on food quality might see a tech boost as well. At home, sensors such as those developed by MIT could one day notify consumers about which items in their refrigerators are ripe or about to deteriorate. “Or even which orange is sweetest that day and thus better able to raise your blood sugar if you need a boost,” adds futurist Thomas Frey, who regularly prognosticates for audiences at Google. SCiO, for example, is a pocket molecular sensor that scans the molecular signatures of common foodstuffs like oranges and transmits information such as calorie and carbohydrate counts to your smartphone. Consumer Physics, which produces the SciO, raised $2.7m on Kickstarter last year.

“Such technology,” says Mr Frey, “will help us get much more accurate about how the food we’re eating is affecting us.” This information could be especially important for those for whom accurate real-time data are critical, such as insulin-dependent diabetics. Combined with the appropriate software, for example, this data could help a new generation of insulin pumps to adjust insulin levels automatically in real time, thus helping patients avoid incidents of hypoglycemia. Medtronic, a manufacturer of insulin pumps, is about to move in this direction and the company will soon use software to monitor streaming patient data.

Long-term benefits of connectivity might expand in the future as well. Consider, as you sidle up to the fast-food counter, that someday your nano-implants, relaying real-time data about your body, might interface with what Mr Frey calls “a hyper-segmented supply chain” that would permit the delivery of meal ingredients to restaurants in tiny components so your order would be tailored specifically to you.

The result? A bespoke burger meeting your body’s exact, real-time macro- and micro-nutrient needs. “Maybe that day, to perform optimally, you require a meal containing exactly 17.4% fat,” says Mr Frey. Sensors might relay that you need calcium in the form of 4.2 grams of cheese, which the restaurant “remembers” must be sheep’s milk Manchego because you are allergic to cow’s milk. Other data will help create a hyper-individualised menu tailored to your specific health needs.

“A lot of this will be so automated that we won’t notice it,” Mr Frey says. “And that data loop will take the guesswork out of decisions, such as what ‘superfoods’ you need or what supplements and amounts would help.”

Give it time; big data might just transform the Big Mac.

This article is published in collaboration with GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman is a writer at GE LookAhead.

Image: Silhouettes of men holding phones in front of the Twitter symbol. REUTERS.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthFourth Industrial Revolution
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