The Future of Flavor Kelly Hensel | December 2017, Volume 71, No.12

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This vocal and passionate consumer group seeks many things when it comes to their food, but three values are exerting the greatest influence on new product development and flavor innovation. These drivers are a desire to experience new bold and authentic flavors, clean labels with simple ingredients, and food that is going to improve one’s health and wellness. Each flavor trend—alcohol infusion, fermentation, East Africa and Southern India, herbs and botanicals, and maple and honey—meets at least one, if not all, of these consumer demands, which is why the contributing experts see them as “the ones to watch” in 2018 and beyond.

“Overall, the palette of flavor tonalities consumed by individuals is increasing,” says Mane’s Fernandez. “Taste curiosity and diversity is on the rise. … Nevertheless, truly unfamiliar tastes take years, if not decades, to find their way into people’s everyday habits.”

The more that the food industry can balance what’s new with what consumers are already familiar with, the easier, and perhaps faster, it will be for them to adopt new flavors. Additionally, imparting new flavors into more categories of food enables more exposure and an increased level of comfort.

“Traditionally, beverage and confectionery are extremely innovative categories as far as flavor is concerned,” says Fernandez. “But flavor diversity is also expanding rapidly in the culinary space of savory snacks, ready-to-eat meals, and sauces.”

And that means that as consumers walk down the aisles of the grocery store next year, they will likely find themselves surprised—and even delighted—to see how these trending flavors pop up everywhere from the chip aisle to the freezer section.

IFTNEXT is made possible through the generous support of Ingredion Incorporated, IFT’s Platinum Innovation Sponsor.

The IFTNEXT initiative is a heightened, purpose-drive commitment to bringing provocative ideas and discoveries together to inspire thoughtful, important conversations that challenge conventional approaches with the goal of informing global issues related to the science of food.

Using AI to Optimize Flavor
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, Caleb Harper is on a mission to create a healthier and more sustainable food system using artificial intelligence (AI), experimentation, and open source data mining. He is the director of the Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg), which is looking at ways to create more inventive future food systems.

MIT OpenAg Personal Food Computer.In 2015, the Media Lab researchers developed the OpenAg Personal Food Computer—a contained growing environment that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth. Climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature are among the many conditions that can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber to yield various phenotypic expressions in the plants. The goal? Make growing food for nutrition and flavor a reality.

As Harper explains, each grow cycle “amounts to about 3.5 million data points per plant. … We call that a recipe. We take that data and do machine learning. There are two sets of data: what did the plant do and what did we do to the plant, and then we use machine learning and AI in between.”

At first, the researchers were analyzing the data themselves to slowly improve their “climate recipes.” But in 2016, the researchers partnered with Sentient—a company that develops AI platforms for industries such as investment and healthcare. Now, the AI uses the data from each grow to suggest changes to the climate recipe for the next grow cycle. According to a blog post written by Arielle Johnson, scientist and director’s fellow with OpenAg, “in an ideal world, Food Computers will learn from the data as they’re generating it and the climate recipes will get better through the growth cycle” (2017).

The researchers’ first experiments with the Food Computers were testing optimization of flavor using basil as a model organism. As of May, the team had run three rounds of basil experiments’ data through Sentient’s AI and could already determine that “the model is finding things we would have never been able to find on our own,” writes Johnson in her blog post.

The team finished building the Food Server—a shipping container–sized, controlled environment agriculture technology that can be built to utilize hydroponic or aeroponic technology. It is intended to produce larger quantities of food than a Personal Food Computer and, according to the researchers, will appeal to interdisciplinary researchers and small-scale cafeterias, restaurants, and boutique operators.

Perhaps the best, and most important, part of the team’s work is that it is all available, open and for free. “There’s never been a time in human history where you can get more people working on a single problem—if you share that infrastructure,” says Harper in an interview withThe Splendid Table. “I don’t think anything is more important than how we are going to feed all the people in the world with the least amount of resources and the highest amount of flavor and nutrition” (Lam 2017).