In an age of tasteless food, could we still find things delicious?

Diets have improved so much and flavors have become so sophisticated that today we can experience delicious food anywhere at any time. We are awash in a uniform sense of what tastes good, which has transformed the joys and values associated with eating. Are there ways to elicit the feeling of deliciousness using information other than our sense of taste?



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The most recent UN forecasts suggest that by 2050 the population of the world will grow to 9.8 billion people from its current 7.6 billion. Despite the need to increase food production, economic development is highly likely to accelerate urbanization and reduce cultivated land area. Further economic growth in the developing countries of Asia and elsewhere is expected to lead, as it once did in Japan, to a shift away from grain-based diets and toward Western-style diets built around meat and fish. Even as farmland decreases, grains will naturally be required to raise the livestock for which demand is growing. Given that 800 million people are already said not to get sufficient food, how will we feed more than 2 billion more?

A diet separated from nature

There is no doubt that humanity will face a serious food problem in the near future. One of the numerous possible countermeasures is the establishment of techniques for producing artificial foods. What we need is tools for efficiently absorbing nutrients into the body, synthesizing proteins, combining lipids, and supplying vitamins. One method seen as a possible solution, for example, is cultured meat, such as beef developed by growing livestock stem cells in a culture medium.

One major advantage is that because factories could be built in any region, it would be possible to supply food of uniform quality. Although produced by a logic nothing like that of genetically modified crops, which are already widespread, cultured meat shares the aims of increasing production and lowering costs. Dramatically improved preservation techniques, too, may be a way not only to address the problem of food supply but also the problem of food waste. In any case, the foods of the future will move bit by bit away from nature. Technological progress is expected to lead to a time when everyone will consume the same food everywhere, regardless of personal feelings about what constitutes the joy of eating. In other words, diet will become more uniform and commoditized.

Tasting with the eyes and ears

Processed foods already make up an increasing proportion of our diet, and consolidation in the agricultural and livestock industries is beginning to make our diet more uniform. Many global chains tout the fact that they offer the same taste anytime anywhere, but this can also be seen as to be just a standardization of flavor regardless of place.

The end of deriving joy from eating?

One possible solution is the placebo effect of information on taste. In an age when a food crisis is unavoidable and we will have no choice but to consume mass-produced foods, it may be information that spices up what we eat. An experiment demonstrated that when people were asked to rank the taste of unlabeled beers, most found it impossible to distinguish among different brands. Another experiment found that tap water put in labelled plastic bottles was judged in tastings to be sweeter and less odorous than the same water straight from the tap. We taste what we consume using more than just our tongues. Our senses of sight, smell, touch, and hearing, as well as the information we receive in advance, influences the flavor.

THINK HUMAN PROJECT member Kazuki Sakamoto had this to say about the food issues on the horizon:

“Our project doesn’t take the approach of trying to solve the food problems we will face in the future, but instead tries to look for something new by focusing on how to make the experience of food richer under such conditions. We are particularly interested in how information draws out flavor. People don’t taste with their tongues alone. While analyzing the relationship between information and the sense of taste, we hope to find ways to add value by improving the feelings of joy that are associated with food. The coming population increase is also expected to make the increase in the elderly population even more pronounced. We think it might also be possible to compensate for changes related to the sense of taste that accompany aging (such as reduced saliva or a decline in the sense of smell) through information that stimulates the five senses.”

What kind of information, then, will make our diets richer? Next time, we will look at a number of experiments that get to the heart of this question.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

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