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3-D printers, growth incubators, insects… VTT researchers weigh future foods

Consumer choices are shaping the future of food. As the planet's population soars beyond the current 7.4 billion, humanity must make more efficient use of raw materials to ensure sufficient food supply. This will include reducing waste.

CellPod-solujen kasvatuslaite
VTT's CellPod grows plant cells into an applesauce-like raw material in a variety of flavours. Image: Yle

Scientists at the state-owned VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are grappling with these issues. They point out that centralised food production, long-distance deliveries and storage all result in waste at various points of the food chain.

Futurologists predict that food will increasingly be produced to order directly from the point of purchase. There are already harbingers of this change, such as robots that churn out customised ice cream servings and machines that make pizzas from scratch based on customer orders.

The use of 3D printers in food production is also under constant development. Eventually such printers may be standard home kitchen equipment.

Traditional markets move into digital age

VTT research professor Kaisa Poutanen says that new technology has already created an entirely different framework for food production, delivery and consumption, even though one can still buy a fish or vegetable from a market stall just as people have for millennia.

"Consumer behaviour is changing all the time, whether or not we think it is ourselves. Consumers adapt to the surrounding society," she says.

She argues that food procurement and eating must become more sustainable. Food will increasingly be served by automats and robots, she suggests. If the number of people taking part in a meal or what they want to eat is unclear in advance, it may be more efficient if each diner chooses his or her own serving from a machine.

Poutanen points out that there is now a growing array of flavours and types of yoghurts available in shops, for instance – so why shouldn't each customer simply be able to order a carton according to personal taste, mixed on the spot?

She also notes that even Finland's traditional indoor market halls are already adapting to changes. For instance, most payments are by card or even mobile device rather than cash.

"And the information about what's available at the market is different. A market vendor can list on his or her Facebook page that they've got a fresh load of Arctic char [a sought-after fish]. There are also delivery services that can pick up the item for you if you don't have time," says Poutanen.

Digitalisation will be central in the form of smart product labelling and delivery. Poutanen adds that more informative labelling can add to the enjoyment of food.

Patented solutions on offer

VTT is also studying new technologies for food preparation and quality control. Researchers have developed a small bioreactor dubbed the CellPod that grows plant cells. A bag of them is placed in the tabletop incubator, which within a week grows the 'seeds' into a half-kilo of applesauce-like raw material. Flavours available so far include lingon and other berries as well as birch and scurvygrass, a flowering plant named for its medicinal properties.

Lead researcher Juha-Pekka Pitkänen says the resulting nutritious product can be mixed in with yoghurt, for instance. Now his team is looking for partners to put the CellPod into mass production.

"This kind of gadget will become a standard kitchen appliance," he predicts. "It will come with growing bags containing the starter cells and aseptic growing dishes," says Pitkänen.

VTT researchers are also looking into refining insects into food raw materials – yet another area where consumer attitudes may gradually become more accepting over the years.

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