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The Restaurant of the Future is run by scientists at the Wageningen University to investigate influences on eating behaviour and to carry out studies for the food industry

The Restaurant of the Future at Wageningen University in the Netherlands looks like a staff canteen of the present — well lit, comfortable. There is, sad to report, no freeze-dried ice cream in pellets or nano-nutraceuticals piped straight to your lower gut.  The future of food includes baby purée to improve brain power, beauty drinks to smooth wrinkles and chocolates to help you slim.

 

Lunch is salads, a hot dish counter serving chicken breast in a cheese sauce and something vegetarian, pickled fish, a choice of soups. It’s bland but OK, apart from the bottled water. This carries the irritating slogan: “Drink Well, Live Well.” I don’t like beverages that order you around. The other odd thing is a consent form by the self-service tills — sign it and you permit Wageningen University access to the data collected in the restaurant.

Everyone who eats here is a guinea pig. At the till, a miniature weighbridge set in the floor recorded my weight. A camera over my head l was photographing what I was buying — of course the till recorded that, too, but how I’d served myself is significant. And more cameras watched my hesitations at the chicken counter, the greed with which I grabbed two pickled herring and my sneer at the bottled water. They would film my reaction to the food, the way I ate it and measure what I left on the plate. This was lunch with Big Brother.

For those who want to sell us food, it is very useful. “Last week we had some old people in here eating a new product that the manufacturers were confused about,” Marchel Gorselink, a food scientist, says. “It had tested very well — the old people said, ‘Wow, it is great!’. But it was not selling. When we watched the old people eat we realised that they were leaving 80 per cent on their plates. The portion was too big and older people are unhappy about waste.”

Wageningen is Europe’s biggest research centre in food science and its Restaurant of the Future is a key laboratory. Opened a year ago, it now has a vast amount of data on the eating habits of its staff and students. This it uses to test products and ideas for food scientists, governments and the food processing industry whose business model is dependent on being able to put “new” and “improved” on packets and selling them to you.

In the rooms above the restaurant, Gorselink shows off the computers that process the data from lunch into information for manufacturers and researchers. There are also kitchens and “mood rooms” and blind-tasting areas. We see a dentist’s chair hooked up to tubes that will squirt tastes and smells into subjects’ mouths and noses and measure their reaction. A snake-haired helmet of electromagnetic sensors records exactly how people chew and swallow different substances. In another lab, cameras working simultaneously will watch 15 different muscular reactions that can occur on our faces when we taste something, and quantify them by computer. “Often people can’t tell you how they feel about a taste,” Gorselink says. The activity on the face is more revealing.

In one mood room tests are being done on what flower on a restaurant table, or a which food packet is most likely to put you in a happy or hungry frame of mind. The results were a secret. But, from what I saw, gladioli or sunflowers could be the answer.

In the kitchens we’re shown how the testers were offered chicken and mushroom burgers, identical except that one was labelled “healthy”, another “new” and the third “made with the welfare of the chickens” in mind. The men chose “new”, the women “welfare”. Another set of testers were asked which burger had more taste: the “welfare” burger won. With these sort of details a manufacturer can smell money.

Next door the scientists are finalising the results of a European Commission-sponsored study on how to increase fish consumption by getting people who don’t like fish to eat it. The answer — this took a year of tests on 1,000 Restaurant of the Future regulars and many buckets of euros — was to offer something that doesn’t look like fish, or even taste very fishy. The result, “a spiced patty of ground-up fish, South East Asian style” is now being developed by commercial food manufacturers. It will work, says Dr Adriaan Kole, the scientist in charge. The restaurant and its laboratories take much of the uncertainty out of launching new foods — and that is gold dust in an industry where getting a new product to market can take two years.

It’s also quite spooky. Wherever you look in the food innovation sector, you see the disciplines of biochemistry, medicine, psychology and marketing all working hard at what some might interpret as pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes.

About 30 years ago, it seems, the science of food processing went beyond the understanding of normally intelligent human beings. You could no longer be sure, by reading the label, what had been done to your snack. Since then keeping the trust of consumers has been key to food marketing — a holy grail prized by an industry that, over the past 100 years, has done more than most to earn consumers’ scepticism.

Yet now “selling food as an alternative to medicine”, as a Wageningen scientist put it, is the big corporations’ main strategy. Why, you may wonder, should these people now hope to sell food to make us healthier? After all, they brought us transfats and margarine, ice cream made out of palm oil and sweet colourings from crude oil, children’s snacks stuffed with sugar and salt, E.coli in processed chicken and dioxins in bacon.

The day before the lunch at the Restaurant of the Future, I was at a seminar in Rotterdam titled “The optimally nourished consumer as co-producer of its own health”, given by Professor Robert Brummer, of Örebro University, Sweden. The title could be translated as: “Convincing shoppers that they can make themselves healthier by buying your food.”

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And that is mainly what the two-day conference is about, because eating for health or “wellness” is one of the few areas of food retail that’s now growing. All the key food players were in Rotterdam: Kraft, Premier Foods, Mars, Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo — and so were some specialised suppliers of the new-food tech. They laid out their wares in an exhibition hall in Rotterdam’s World Trade Centre. Among the suits and logos there was an atmosphere of carnival showground. On one stall — of the food supplement brand, Ocean Nutrition — was a Harvest vegetable and mixed-grain baby food, with the words “DHA Brain and Eye development”, beside the baby’s head logo of the US brand Gerber.

This brilliant guilt-trigger for parents (Buy it, or you might raise a myopic dunce!) does not arrive from any great scientific breakthrough. DHA and EPA are forms of the omega-3 oil we’ve been told about for years. The launch of DHA for cognitive function is a work of lobbyists, not scientists. They’ve already convinced regulators in the US and Russia (though one scientist at Rotterdam said he thought the claim was “bullshit”). Several manufacturers there were boasting of a recent breakthrough with the European Food Safety Authority over label wording on omega-3 DHA, and they hope the brain development claim will be allowed next year.

The retailers are getting ready. Marks & Spencer has a fruit juice containing it — though without any claims on brain function — in its shops. Ocean Nutrition has an adult peach juice ready for sale that says it is for “memory and focus”. At the stand of DSM, a major supplier of nutraceuticals and other additives to manufacturers, a salesman was saying: “We have got a whole concept for eye health.” Among the many potions DSM sells is resVida: “Just launched in the US for healthy ageing.” One of his colleagues presses into my hand a box of Teavigo — “the everyday, every minute spa”. What does that mean? “Well, I’d like to go to the spa or sports centre but I can’t. So I take this product and feel the same satisfaction.”

“We innovate to survive — we all know that,” says Dr Graham Cross, Unilever’s “director of innovation acceleration”, in his presentation. But Teavigo turns out to be an extract of tea that may decrease fat absorption. Otherwise, it’s a cuppa in a pill.

There were more marketing ideas than genuine innovation at Rotterdam. I came across only one piece of food bio-tech that I haven’t encountered before.That was the successful attempt by Nestlé scientists to increase “oral wetting perception” — which means adding a chemical to fruit ices and other frozen snacks to make the consumer produce more saliva. That tells the brain that the product is more refreshing. This is the sort of “Frankenfoods” nuttiness we all love, but the main thrust of the food industry’s future planning is more banal, though perhaps more disturbing.

The functional foods market in the EU is now worth €3.5 billion, and it is still growing. And so there are appetite satiation systems for weight-loss; “beauty from within” products; “daily defence” supplements (this is a regulator-dodging code for what in some countries can be called “boosting your immune system”).

But all these things use basics that have been around for a while: probiotics, prebiotics, fibre, sterols, antioxidants and fatty acids. What’s new is the ways of selling them, but the scientific community is divided on the issue. One industry analyst says: “You can’t build a brand on bollocks science. But people are trying to claim stuff I just don’t believe. As always, the marketing men are way ahead of what the science can offer.”

And do the consumers want this stuff? “Yes, they say they are buying more food with health in mind, but they are also increasingly sceptical. In the UK 48 per cent don’t believe many of the health claims on packets. What they want is authentic foods ‘free from’ additives: natural, old-fashioned. The challenge is to deliver the new technology while preserving a clean label.”

In his talk at the conference, Brummer spoke with approval of how in this new world the prescriber and consumer have become “mixed up”. Before making his career in nutrition science and medical biotechnology, Brummer qualified as a medical doctor. I ask if he has any qualms about the confusion of food company with doctor, or the notion of “eating for health”.

“When I started my career,” he says, “the drugs for lowering cholesterol were less effective than a bioactive margarine. The only pharmaceutical more effective than Gefilus [a probiotic] for treating irritable bowel syndrome is antidepressants.”

But is it healthy — in an ethical sense — to deliver these benefits through the food corporations? They have played a key role in turning the rich world fat and prone to heart disease. Earlier, a DSM salesman had told me such concerns were “petty”, but Brummer took the question seriously.

“I think the [food] industry is the best representative of the consumer for the moment — better than the pharmaceutical industry — because it has no interest in delivering what does not work. The market ensures that. But it is crucial that industry builds up the consumers’ trust. Otherwise they won’t make money.”

A taste of things to come

Imminent slim while you guzzle: pizza and beer to help you lose weight. Drinks, snack bars and foods containing encapsulated liquids that turn to fibre in your stomach, slowing the “transit time” of food through your system and giving an illusion of being full.

Fresh just got better: carton fruit juices and other “fresh” products in packets are often heat-treated to destroy bacteria, though this can damage them. New techniques such as pasteurisation by high pressure or electric pulse will extend shelflife without impairing taste or vitamins. They will also cut down on the need for preservatives.

Where would you like to be served? Nano-capsules, many times narrower than a human hair, allow flavours and other chemicals to be suspended invisibly in fluids. They dissolve and release their contents when they reach your palate, your stomach, or your lower gut, as the manufacturer wishes. It’s a new way of delivering nutrients or medicines, or selling, say, a vinaigrette that never needs shaking.

Yoghurt for the brain: the next incarnation of drinks and foods with probiotics, enzymes and omega-3 oils is yoghurts and juices that claim to boost the health of your eyes, improve alertness or even your “cognitive function”. Already licensed in the US, the labels await approval in Europe.

Playtime bread: several manufacturers are planning micro-encapsulated omega-3 oil in bread and other foods, with no taste contamination, to market as a fortified superbread for children’s sandwiches.

Better bio-degradable packaging: made of lactic acids and vegetable starch, but more attractive.

“Beauty from within”: Nestlé and L’Oréal are selling fruit juices as cosmetics, with the upmarket Glowelle range of “beauty drinks”, delivering antioxidants for skin health. Just launched in East Asia is a Nescafé with collagen in it that promises to fill your wrinkles as it perks you up.

Five years ahead

Intelligent packaging: sensors in the wrappers of fresh meat and veg that will tell the retailer — or you — what the food’s temperature or state of freshness is. They could trigger the release of gases or chemicals such as nano-silver to change the internal climate or kill microbes.

Eat yourself happy or relaxed: the way that the neurotransmitter serotonin works in the brain and the gut, and the links between eating, pleasure and happiness, are one of the most busy areas of “brain food” research. Already in Japan an antistress chocolate, using the hormone GABA, has had huge sales success. Chocolate- cherry chewing gum and other sweets with nano- encapsulated flavourings, set to release at different times. You may be able to choose and preprogramme the gum to release whichever flavours you want.

Mouth-feel and oral wetting: new chemicals alter foods to boost the production of saliva, making things taste juicier or more refreshing, and improve the pleasurable sensation of melting fats. Nestlé leads the research.

You decide what coke is it: reportedly, Coca-Cola has experimented with a carton drink, using micro-encapsulation techniques, that offers the consumer the choice of what colour and flavour is released into the liquid on opening it.

Via Times Online