Will You be Able to Stomach the Internet of Food?

By Carl Weiss
Courtesy of  en.wikipedia.org

As if this world wasn't wired enough, there's a movement afoot to use technology to bring the "Internet of Things" concept to the dinner table.  Realizing that consumers are obsessed with diet, weight loss, food allergies and a host of other nutrition-related bugaboos, academics, technologists and entrepreneurs are all looking to cash in by designing and marketing gadgets and apps under the guise of "The Internet of Food."  Everything from automated food scanners and tracking sensors embedded in meat & produce (can you say "Connected Cow?"), to AI-driven diet algorithms designed to help you count calories will soon be the norm.   In today’s blog, I will endeavor to show you how your relationship with the edibles is going to go high tech in a hurry.

Belly Up to the Buffet

Whether you get your food advice from your mom, your friends, the airwaves or the Internet, it’s readily apparent that Americans are a food-obsessed nation.  Since the turn of the century, we have seen chefs turned into media icons and how-to divas like Martha Stewart into multi-millionaires.  (Her reported worth in 2016 is $650 million.)  And let’s not forget the other side of the coin where an entire multi-billion-dollar industry has sprung up for those of us who have had too much of a good thing.  Dieting in the 21st century is worth more than $60 billion per year. So whether your interest in food is to eat better, eat healthier or simply to find a way to eat less, until recently each of these topics was something of a personal crusade.  But as with all else in this wired world, things are about to go high tech. 

By things, I am referring to the Internet of Things (IoT), a concept that has spawned
Courtesy of  pixabay.com
everything from internet-enabled refrigerators to wearable fitness bracelets and clothing that monitor and report on everything from the number of steps you take in a day to your vital signs.  There are even apps that allow people to scan packages in the grocery store to alert them about nutritional content and/or potential food allergies.  However, until recently, all these IoT appliances and software were simply stand-alone utilities that, while useful, could not connect diet and exercise with the user’s health conditions and preferences. 

All that changed in late 2015 when Scottish professor Maged Boulos an expert in digital health at the University of Highlands and Islands in Inverness, Scotland proposed that the same technology used to enable objects to collect and exchange information could be applied to food.  That’s right, the same nation that gave us such delicacies as haggis, neeps and tatties is at the forefront of a revolution that is soon going to change your relationship with the grocery store, not to mention your favorite restaurants.

Already there is a movement afoot by several industry partners, including Cisco, to create and deploy systems, sensors and devices the aim of which is to “improve the safety and transparency of the ways that food is produced, delivered, and consumed.”


While you have no doubt heard of smart fridges, you probably have yet to hear about connected cows.  In an August 2015 post by theguardian.com, it was revealed that, “These cows aren’t simply tweeting their position to online followers.  Under a project run by Dr. Jonathan Amory at Writtle College, sensors are tracking dairy cows to help farmers spot illnesses earlier, creating an early-warning system for disease that hopefully cuts suffering for the animals and improves milk yields.” 

Even more interesting is the fact that the same technology that can be used to better our bovines is also being deployed to help save the embattled honeybee. 

Bees are in trouble. Their numbers have been in sharp decline, and no one is entirely sure why. One explanation for colony collapse disorder (CCD), as the disaster is known, is a type of mite – and researchers at the University of Minnesota and a firm called Eltopia have a solution that pops the plague like popcorn while keeping bees and hives safe.

Courtesy of  pixabay.com
“We have printed circuitry on PLA (corn-based) plastic film that is coated with beeswax and impressed with a honeycomb pattern upon which the worker bees can draw out the comb,” said co-founder Aaron Seelye. “The ink is a special type that can both act as a temperature sensor one moment, and a heater the next. By taking cues from the environment, we can interrupt the reproductive cycle of the Varroa Mite, which is widely considered the leading cause of CCD.”

IoF technology goes far beyond connected cows and I-bees.  It’s also at the heart of developing plants that not only resist pests, but can be grown to order.  “The hardware sensors are similar to what you see in any semiconductor plant,” said Enrique Andaluz, Director of Strategic Business Development for Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing at Microsoft. Indeed, Fujitsu’s test bed is a chip plant that’s been converted to grow IoT-managed plants. “The information is picked from building sensors that control temperature, humidity, CO2, light intensity and other factors that affect the ‘perfect conditions’ to grow crops.” That data is handed to Microsoft’s Azure cloud, where it’s analyzed for reports and to send alerts about its care.

Courtesy of  www.flickr.com
All this data means it’s possible to fine tune the conditions to grow low-potassium lettuce. “To reduce the level of potassium at home, you typically cook the raw vegetables to change their internal chemical composition,” said Andaluz. And who wants cooked lettuce? “Fujitsu has been able to produce a raw lettuce with less than 80% of potassium content as compared to traditional grown lettuce.” 

From the distribution perspective, everything from “Smart Seeds” to “Distribution Robots” are being designed and built to connect with and communicate to the global food production system.  Faced with an ever-growing population combined with the stresses associated with global warming, it is thought that the only way to ensure the safe and economic production of food is via technology.  Far from only affecting the global scheme of things, the Internet of Food will also have a profound difference for consumers as well.

The Opposite of Garbage In, Garbage Out

The past ten years have seen the emergence of a global food chain where products are sourced from around the world.  Some of these products are genetically modified, some are grown using questionable standards.  As a result, many US consumers are concerned about the safety of food purchased in grocery stores and restaurants.  (The 2015 media storm caused for the Chipotle restaurant chain is certainly not an isolated incident.)  A recent blogpost on foodtechconnect.com entitled “Reconnecting Diners & Chefs to ensure a Better Food Future” sums it up nicely.

Courtesy of  en.wikipedia.org
When you look at the mainstream food industry over the past couple of decades however, providing quality products has typically been an obstacle to success. The consumer demand for quality was too diluted to overcome the inertia of ubiquitous, highly processed “cheap” food. Defining success by pure economics meant that most foodservice operators have been engaged in a dangerous price-driven race to the bottom. This race leaves food quality and consumer health out of the equation and ultimately contributes to a public health crisis with massive economic and environmental consequences.

Today’s rising obesity and diabetes rates are accompanied by growing healthcare costs and environmental concerns as a result of our food choices. And as the alarming economic forecasts loom, government-led initiatives continue to emerge. Mandatory menu labeling is going national, and new dietary recommendations for the first time, take into account environmental sustainability. While the long-term impact on consumer demand and food quality of such measures remains to be seen, it’s clear that the intention is to amplify consumer awareness around food choices.

Obviously tracking of products from spawn to spoon would be one big leg up on this health-related issue.  Technology also provides a number of ways for consumers to cut out the middleman by growing their own produce either indoors or out.  Check out one such innovation from Grove.

Courtesy of  en.wikipedia.org
From an evolutionary it wasn’t so long ago when farming was humanity’s chief occupation.  Today there are very few US citizens that know how to grow much else then their lawns.  (and they usually dump a ton of herbicides and pesticides on even that)  This has opened up a niche for entrepreneurs who design, manufacture and ship all manner of self-contained vegetable gardens for consumers.  Some of these systems provide technology (either hardwired or AP based) that takes the work out of raising veggies.  Some are soil-based while others are hydroponic growing systems.  One thing is for sure, families don’t have to worry about where these edibles come from since they are homegrown.

If like me, you have been saddled with a brown thumb, there are other options that will soon be coming to a kitchen near you.  One of them would be food printers, like the Foodini.  Introduced in a Kickstarter campaign by Natural Machines, the $1,000 contraption is programmed to deliver ready-to-cook meals such as pasta and pizza at the press of a button.  An excerpt an article on Foodini explains how the machine makes ravioli.

Courtesy of  www.flickr.com
How often have you made homemade ravioli? Rolling out the dough to a thin layer, adding the filling, adding the top layer of dough, and then cutting it to size takes time. Let Foodini do it for you. Simply load the dough and filling into Foodini, and Foodini will print individual raviolis for you. The 3D printing of food – in this case, creating a layer of pasta, a layer of filling, and covering it with a layer of pasta again – is assembling the ravioli. The same as you would do by hand, except Foodini automates it: you don’t have to manually do all the work… Foodini does it for you. Less mess in your kitchen, more time to do other things. http://3dprintingindustry.com/2014/03/31/3d-printer-foodini-food-kickstarter/

Speaking of cuisine, in the near future consumers will be able to shop for diet plans the same way they currently shop for cars.  That’s largely due to the fact that like our web-enabled, sensor laden automobiles, the tech tools that will help you count calories and stick to both a diet and exercise plan will soon merge into an integrated off-the-shelf package. 

Imagine what it would be like to be able to walk down the aisle at the supermarket with a smartphone app that would not only assist you in selecting the products that have the right nutritional value for your specific needs, but that would also assist you in planning your weekly menu.  Then couple this with an exercise monitoring device such as FitBit that would be integrated into the system and that has been tasked with helping motivate you into burning off the calories.  It would come down to a high tech case of cause and effect.  Here’s what Professor Boulos as quoted in ablog on foodmanufacture.co.uk has to say about this concept.
Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

“Such an Internet of Food could provide context, user-specific insights and intelligent recommendations based on an individual’s health needs, circumstances and profiles at any given time. Such an application could also help to advise users about any essential ingredients lacking in their diet.”

So what you will eventually be able to take advantage of is an intelligent system that will customize a diet and exercise plan to your exact needs and wants.  Plus, you will have a feedback protocol that will motivate you into sticking with the program.  When coupled with smart appliances, this should make for a lively discourse concerning who or what is ultimately in control of the situation.

“Open the refrigerator door please, Hal.”
“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
“Give me a damn popsicle before I rip your guts out, Hal!”

In this article I have discussed how the food industry is entering the Internet of Things age. This article explores how the food industry starting to utilize sensing devices and internet connectivity to monitor food growth, production quality and safety the implications of these new usages will have repercussions for a long time to come.

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would like to learn more about this subject, visit the notes page on this blog for the BlogTalkRadio show dated 1/19/16. I recommend checking out "Has the Internet Made Us Smarter?“, "Hector the Connector Predictions for 2016 and Beyond!", "Is The Internet of Everything Really, Everything They're Cracking it Up to Be?andThe Basics of Biohacking” You can also search for other related articles by typing in “IoT or the Internet of Things” in the search box top of this blog.

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Carl Weiss is president of WorkingtheWebtoWin.com a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers to grow their businesses.

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4 comments:

  1. It's a brave new world when digital technologies and food combine forces.

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  2. The Internet of Things is getting a little out of control. People love the convenience of the connectedness but they forget that all of this new connectedness is coming without any safeguards from hacking. I predict a worldwide hackfest instead of a food fest in the near future.

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  3. I don't mind the internet being involved with food, as long as I don't have to eat any spiders.

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  4. This is truly one of the most interesting articles I've read in a while. From tracking cows to printing bee hives and ravioli...wow.

    ReplyDelete