SXSW Panels: Food and Technology
More highlights from the 2017 food track
By Emily Beyda,
1:20PM, Mon. Mar. 13, 2017
Sunday's SXSW food track was about redefining out relationship with eating – down to the molecular level.
Spira's Elliot Roth and Peer-to-Peer Probiotic's Prateek Garg talked about the ways in which issues surrounding global malnutrition can be addressed using microbial fermentation. As Roth enthusiastically put it,“ We’re talking about a world with infinite food, where you don’t have to worry about where your nutrition is coming from.” Childhood narratives such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs are appealing because humanity is entranced by not having to worry where our food is coming from, but they are also emblematic of our own vast overproduction of food. Nearly 40% of the food grown in industrialized countries is never consumed. Simultaneously, 45% of children who die under the age of six die from malnutrition. Roth and Garg think that we can bridge this divide with microbes, which, they say, “Treat the causes of the problems of industrialized food rather than the symptoms.” As Garg explains, “Microbes are everywhere. They’re on your body, they’re in your body, they’re on your skin, they’re in your food. You’re more microbe than human. That means that these microbes are supremely important; any imbalance in them can lead to a host of health problems.” Microbes thrive on fermented food. We all know how delicious kimchi, balsamic vinegar, or a nice cheese can be, but fermentation is also a good way to introduce more good microbes into your body. According to Garg, "Fermentation is the longest-standing form of biotechnology. Every single culture in this world has some fermentation-based cuisine, which means that the microbial dependence of human life is universal.” They argue that the fundamental problem with global malnutrition isn’t a lack of produce. Even if we could produce an infinite amount of rice for the developing world, malnutrition would still exist, because rice isn’t nutritionally complete. Using microbes, people in the developing world can ferment whatever their local staple crop is, and transform it into something nutritionally complete.
Roth became interested in microbes when he met a doctor working in Ethiopia who struggled with the problem of supplying the people in the villages where he worked with adequate nutrients. The only way that they could meet their community’s needs would be by producing their own food locally, and in this part of the world it’s impossible to grow an adequate amount of nutritionally dense food using traditional agricultural methods. As Roth explained, all food starts with the sun, and as it moves from plant to animal, it’s going up the food pyramid. We lose energy with every step along the way. In order to get the most nutritional density/energy possible, we need to eliminate as many steps as possible. Microbes are a good solution because they’re fast-growing, take up minimal space, and can grow anywhere. He started his company, Spira, to grow a micro algae called spirulina, which is not a complete meal replacement, but contains most of the essential nutrients needed to survive. “In 1974, the UN said spirulina was the food of the future, if you coupled it with rice it would be all the food you needed to survive. It’s a superfood, a powerhouse, that anybody can grow in a tank.” In response to this global need, Spira designed a system for people to grow spirulina on a micro level in their own homes. Roth’s parents are currently growing it in a tank on their windowsill. He says he had them do it because if it passed the “parent test,” anyone could figure it out.
This panel focused on a nationwide survey done by the Today show to commemorate their 65th year on the air. As anchor Jenna Bush Hager put it, Today has had, “A metaphorical seat at everybody’s breakfast table for years. People are sitting down with their kids, eating breakfast, and watching our show.” The show assembled a panel of chefs, Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow, Milk Bar's Christina Tosi, and Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love to talk about what they had discovered about American’s breakfast habits. People are making breakfast at home instead of relying on prepackaged or quick meals. They’re putting a lot of thought into what they’re making. One of the things they learned in the study was that men were becoming more involved with cooking breakfast for their families. Breakfast has replaced dinner to become the new daily family bonding time, since in the evening, kids are overscheduled and parents are working. It’s a time for emotional connection when everyone has a clear head and hasn’t had a day of stress, when parents and kids can sit down and connect. Love says that breakfast with his family is, “Sometimes about the food, and sometimes it’s just about the time. It can be something as simple as coffee, I always make my wife coffee, that’s our thing. Breakfast allows you to have that connection. At dinner, there are too many distractions, but at breakfast it’s easy, it’s fresh.” He thinks that breakfast has also become a site for people to conduct business and connect with friends and colleagues. “The breakfast meeting is the new thing. People are too busy to get lunch. They like to meet over breakfast because it’s a quicker meal, and it’s a good way to get people fresh. That’s why we see more restaurants dedicating themselves to breakfast, rather than just adding it as a third option, dedicating real thought process to breakfast.”
Because of the increasing popularity of restaurant breakfast, and a new attention to complexity of flavor, people are eating breakfast throughout the day. Koslow talked about becoming interested in the idea of breakfast all day when she was in college, subsisting off cereal, and thinking about, “How cereal can be an actual meal, or even dinner. We change our menu from breakfast to add a lunch menu around noon, but people are still ordering French toast, they’re ordering hash. What I’m interested in now is the longevity of breakfast dishes we can eat throughout the day.” Love says that he thinks all day breakfast is popular for reasons of both thrift and flavor. “People are eating eggs for dinner, and instead of spending $30 on dinner you’re spending $5. People are putting eggs on everything.” And of course, as Tosi adds, “Nothing beats a runny egg, it’s one of the most luscious things.” She thinks that the secret to breakfast in America is, “Variety, more than anything else. Breakfast will continue to evolve, and I always think about the menu at Milk Bar about what I’m eating and what I want to be eating, and variety is important. We’re living in this line between the indulgent and the non-indulgent, and having the variety available is important.” For Koslow, it’s about deepening flavors to challenge and reward your palate. “It’s about taking it to the next level, starting with something basic and elevating it. Part of it is ingredients-based, an ingredient, or a flavor, or a texture; you start with an element and then you build.”
For all of the panelists, breakfast is one of the most emotional meals. Tosi says that for her, “The food we relate to the most is food that we get. Not that we get intellectually, but when we eat it we think, ‘This makes sense in my mouth.’ That’s why breakfast is so important, because we have a relationship with a runny egg, we have a relationship with toast, it’s personal.” Koslow agrees, saying, “That’s what Sqril’s about, that’s what breakfast is about, coming together and being together and enjoying life.”
In a panel conducted by consultant Brita Rosenheim, Yummly's Greg Druck, Foodpairing founder Bernard Lahousse, and Innet's Ankit Brahmbhatt, the discussion was about the ways in which artificial intelligence and machine learning can help improve people’s culinary experiences. Lahousse talked about his company Foodpairing, which focuses on the sensory building blocks of food, analyzing food on a molecular level, using machine learning to create and suggest food pairings and create recipes. The advantage of machine pairing is that you can create innovative pairings no human would intuitively think about, including flavors that come from faraway places chefs wouldn’t have knowledge of or access to. The example Lahousse gave was of a French chef using a rare Korean pepper on his menu, which, without an algorithmic suggestion, he wouldn’t have known existed, but AI learning could also help chefs discover new combinations of ingredients they used every day. “What we noticed,” Lahousse said, “is that chefs knew they could make certain combinations work, but they wouldn’t try them until a combination confirmed it. One chef told me he loved caviar with ketchup, but as a Michelin-starred chef would never dare to serve such a strange combination without the confirmation from the algorithm that he wasn't crazy.”
Brahmbhatt and Druck were more interested in taking AI out of the restaurant kitchen, and looking at the ways in which machine learning can improve the experiences of home cooks. Brahmbhatt said that machine learning is particularly good at figuring out scientific approaches to saving time, money, and food waste in a universal way. “Food is inherently personal, and so for us the goal is to direct people toward the kind of food they want to be consuming so they don’t overbuy ingredients, to know that any meal we’re consuming is the best version for ourselves and for our families.” Druck added that increased user engagement with machine learning can help you be healthier by keeping track of what you eat and creating comprehensive data, so that the AI could suggest additions to recipes to help you meet your nutritional goals, and help you understand what your particular needs are.
On a less pragmatic level, Brahmbhatt says that AI can create better recipes for home cooks by modeling thousands of repetitions of the recipe made with various small changes, so that recipes are living and changing. We can learn from each other’s experiences, and use them to create a better meal for ourselves. Similarly, on Yummly, your own search patterns can help improve the recommended recipes both on your homepage, and the homepage of people whose taste is similar to your own. They will predict recipes you might like, and have integrated searching. When you sign up, they ask questions about what you like to eat, then analyze those responses and your own habits saving and looking at recipes to predict new things you might be interested in. As Druck says, “Our tastes and preferences vary wildly, so we should have a way to let users find recipe content that’s relevant for them.” AI turns food and recipes into raw data, so that the computer can figure out what cuisine it’s from, how healthy it is, the skill level required, and what diets and allergies it would be compatible with. He believes that AI-enhanced recipe searches are particularly helpful for someone who “has a lot of food preferences or dietary constraints, maybe their kid is picky or someone in their family has allergies. We want to help them find recipes that meet their needs, and hopefully make their lives easier.”
Food entrepreneurs Rob Wilder of ThinkFood, Eric Ellestad of Local Roots, Alice Cheng of Culinary Agents, and Eileen Gordon Chiarello of Barnraiser discussed the ways in which the American capitalist system has changed in response to what they call the “food tech revolution.” The global food and agricultural industry is a $7.8 trillion market, and comprises about a tenth of the world’s GDP, but in many fundamental ways our approach to food hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years since the rise of industrialized agriculture, when we figured out ways to produce calories efficiently and cheaply. Even though we can produce food with incredible efficiency, we still have global hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition, even as obesity rates continue to grow. Combined across the world, this creates what Wilder estimates as an additional $2 trillion medical cost. The food tech revolution is both about growing consumer interest and engagement in addressing these issues, and to an extraordinary pace of innovation, a bottom-up revolution coming from small, passionate entrepreneurs who are passionate about the issues they address. Each of these companies, in their own way, try to address the problems of our global food systems in ways that will engage consumers, and make them and their investors money.
Gordon Chiarello says that food is an important part of investing as part of a social mission because, “There are 80 million consumers who are interested in organic, better-for-you food. Food is a proxy for getting to be healthier, better consumers, better people. We’re here in service of the entire ecosystem, the seeders, the feeders, and the eaters.” People are investing in food and technology at unprecedented rates, seeing it both as an economic opportunity and solving global problems, and Wilder says that they are increasingly interested in investing in companies and products that will align with their values and make the world a better place. Ellestad believes that capitalism is stronger when it is inclusive, that there is value in having purpose, looking down the line to consider the environmental and ethical impact of the work they do. Ultimately, as Cheng put it, “The DNA of an entrepreneur is to always be hustling.”
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SXSW 2017, Elliot Roth, Prateek Garg, Jenna Bush Hager, Tim Love, Jessica Koslow, Christina Tosi, Bernard Lahousse, Gregory Druck, Ankit Brahmbhatt, Brita Rosenheim, Eileen Gordon Chiarello, Rob Wilder, Alice Cheng, Eric Ellestad