Hello! Welcome to part two of our two-part series exploring the intersection of food and technology. In the last article, I laid out the ways these two disciplines interact during production and transportation. But what happens once food reaches consumers?
Once food is in the hand of consumers - whether that be the end-user or the middle man - it is usually manipulated a certain way to ensure its safety. Technology like refrigeration and freezing preserve food at a specific temperature and in a consistent manner to prevent the growth of bacteria and extend its shelf life. Other techniques developed to preserve food include canning, pasteurizing, sterilizing, pickling, salting, sugaring, drying, and vacuum-packing. While not commonly referred to as technologies, they are nonetheless since they involve the application of science for practical purposes. Additionally, technology is used as a means to measure food’s safety before even preserving it. Machines can detect the presence of bacteria. Thermometers measure a product’s temperature to verify if it is safe to eat. It is important to remember, though, that “technology”, as it relates to food, does not only refer to gadgets and machines.
Indeed, technological advancements in other realms have an impact on how we interact with food. The internet is perhaps the most obvious one, but it is not limited to simply being able to order food to get delivered. Nowadays our lives are mostly lived online; this is where we receive and exchange most of our information and knowledge. We can look up recipes, research food, learn about foreign ingredients, purchase ingredients or meals online. In the last couple of decades, too, food has become not just a resource for nourishment or even connection, but a capitalist-oriented tool from which we can extract profit. Essentially, certain forms of technology make information and conversation around food more immediate and accessible. I will talk more in-depth about this issue in a later article so stay tuned!
When it comes to the consumption of food, technology plays more the role of facilitator. The kitchen - and perhaps the dining room - are where these interactions occur. Fancy cooking gadgets not only attract consumers for their potential usefulness, but also for the fun they bring into the kitchen. Sophisticated appliances like refrigerators with integrated cameras that allow us to see what food we have from a distance and built-in thermometers that can monitor - and maintain - internal temperatures are also a hallmark of technological advancement in the food realm. 3D printers that can print food are perhaps the most recent additions. Companies claim these devices serve an environmentally minded function - reducing food waste, using less energy - but this is up for debate. We will be exploring these ideas in the future as well.
The interaction between technology and food continues even after we have consumed it, in the way we dispose of it. Unfortunately, though, food waste is an often overlooked issue, despite being one of the most pressing. The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40% of food is wasted annually in the US. This jarring statistic is the result of the mismanagement of food at every level of the supply chain - from the producer to the consumer. Common culprits include spoilage when food is improperly stored or handled, strict beauty standards from supermarkets that don’t accept food that doesn’t look a certain way, restaurants throwing away excess food, and people at home simply throwing away food they believe is unsafe. While changing habits is a long and complex process, technology can help reduce food waste by targeting areas where it is more easily solved. Certain applications will connect users to restaurants or cafes that are giving excess food. Others will sell food that is nearing its sell-by date at a lower price, diverting it from the trash can. There are dozens of apps out there, which is a start, but more is needed if we want to have a more profound impact. Technology can help us if we use it the right way.
Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak, our lives have been upended. We are beginning to adjust to a different life - hopefully - but one that is no less dependent on technology to serve our needs and desires. It will be interesting to observe how technology continues to transform the food world, especially if restaurants will become less and less frequent. Virtual dinner, anyone?
This article is of course not exhaustive; there are many other ways in which technology intersects with food, but I hope to have covered enough bases that you get a more comprehensive idea of how/where they do.
“Food Waste FAQs.” USDA, www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs.