The food industry has been undergoing monumental changes in the past few decades—new technologies were implemented, even into the way we cook, produce and buy food. Climate change pushed more and more people to watch out for how much meat they consume, which then made becoming a vegetarian or vegan extremely trendy. This created a growing need for plant-based ‘meats’ and non-dairy products.
Along with these shifts, a new term appeared in the culinary world: ‘digital food’. It’s here, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to vanish anytime soon, so you better get used to it. But what exactly is digital food, and what changes will it inspire in the ever-changing industry that is the food sector?
First of all, let’s start by clarifying something: digital food and new technologies being used in the daily operations of food companies are two different things. New technologies meant that manufacturing processes were upgraded and started producing more food at a faster pace. But digital food is something else entirely. With social media came the recent boom in online food-based media, which completely changed the way we look at food online and seek out new recipes, restaurants and reviews.
We began craving new flavours from different countries, but it went even further than that. From sharing images of food on Instagram to augmented reality (AR) filters that shape our faces into a peach or a tomato or any food you can think of, it seems that the term ‘digital food’ still has many meanings and, therefore, that there is no general consensus on its definition. Why is it not clearer? Because digital food is so recent that it is still in constant change. In other words, digital food is the future but no one can tell what the future holds.
Forget about the Instagram face, the new trend involves face filters that either allow you to look like your favourite food or make photo-realistic 3D food models appear on your camera. Not only can you look like your favourite kind of bubble tea, but you can also help reduce food waste by playing with food digitally. Because, let’s be honest, who hasn’t tried the Greggs face filter that lets you know which Greggs product you are?
Screen Shot spoke to Clay Weishaar, also known as @wrld.space on Instagram, the AR artist specialising in food filters, about our new obsession with food, especially on social media, and why his designs mainly focus on digital food, “Food culture has always been a big subject on Instagram. So has fashion. This has really inspired me to explore the idea of food as fashion. I loved the idea of people wearing their favourite food. With augmented reality technology we have the ability to do this.”
This can explain the kind of feedback that his Instagram filters received: “I am a huge foodie myself. Combining food, fashion and technology was a sweet spot for me. I think the reason my filters have almost 2 billion impressions is that food is something people identify with. It’s a universal subject, and it is what brings people and cultures together.”
Some big food chains have already seen the potential in digital food. For example, Domino’s created a Snapchat filter that would let users see an AR pizza and offer them the possibility of ordering the pizza online, straight from their Snapchat app. Using AR, brands could show us exactly what a specific meal would look like, making it easier for potential customers to make up their minds on what they’d like to order.
Five years ago, people were writing about food online to complain about the trend of people sharing pictures of their meals on Instagram. Now, people are looking, liking and sharing pictures of fake food—digital food.
Among the few who can already see the potential of digital food is Jessica Herrington, who created the Instagram account Fresh Hot Delicious, a completely digital restaurant specialising in digital desserts. She described the concept in OneZero, saying, “Each dessert exists as a freely available AR filter on Instagram. To simulate a real-world restaurant, the desserts ‘sell out’ when the AR filters reach a specific number of views. Users can play with the desserts for free until they are ‘sold out’ and become deactivated. In this way, the digital restaurant gives a life span to previously permanent digital objects.”
Experiencing digital food through AR is an accessible and innovative alternative to engage with an audience. Food brands are trying to sell more than a product—they need to sell an experience, and digital food could help them build a connection with potential customers. The future of the food sector is digital, and we’ve only witnessed a few of the many ways we will consume digital food. As unusual it may seem to many for now, digital food will offer us a new approach to traditional eating experiences, and I don’t know about you, but all this made me hungry.
“Don’t waste cucumber skin and seeds—turn them into a cooling summer drink”.
“How to make the most of ripe tomatoes”.
“Is it safe to eat mouldy jam? Theresa May thinks so”.
These are just some of the titles of the many food waste articles that have recently been flooding the media (with some interesting articles, and others less so). In the U.K., brands and people have all been pledging to reduce their food waste. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition about food and our relationship to it called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate.
So why all the fuss? Because not only is food waste morally unethical, but also our food consumption habits must undergo huge transformations in order to stop the planet from crumbling down or burning up. To lift the mood on that heavy but urgent topic, I wanted to have a more careful look at what’s happening around food waste, who are the people actually changing the game, and what’s next technology-wise.
The first step toward a world where food waste is not an issue is changing our attitude and approach to it. This concept is not recent (during wartime wasting food was out of the question), but today, the urgency surrounding that matter is added on top. We’re not going to transform the problem of the huge quantity of food wasted only by drinking beer made from surplus bread or by learning how to properly peel off the trickiest aliments. But what these ideas are about is exactly what needs to become common thinking: approaching food with a different mentality and being aware of how much food we waste for no justifiable reason at all.
In London, the Brixton Pound Cafe is doing just that and more. This pay-what-you-can surplus food cafe is a radical space with radical ideas where anyone can enjoy veggie and vegan food. Screen Shot talked to environmentalist and the cafe’s chef Sean Roy Parker about food waste and why making surplus food look sexy is the way to go. “The issue is that food waste is shrouded in secrecy because supermarkets’ habits are criminal, why would they want you to know how much food they throw away every day?” Parker notes, adding that “By turning surplus food into affordable meals, we are solving two problems simultaneously: reducing food waste and tackling income inequality. The bonus is that the food is fantastically healthy and tasty”. This attitude is one that local communities should adopt concerning food waste, because every little helps (even Tesco’s ‘reduced’ items).
But what about the rest of the U.K.? The rest of the world? Too Good To Go is an app operating in twelve countries, with its main goal being to save some food—food that is ‘too good to go’. The app allows you to see what food you can pick up in your vicinity before it gets thrown away at the end of the day from restaurants and food shops. This way, you can support your local businesses while contributing to a better environment. Simultaneously, the businesses get to reduce their waste and get potential new customers to try out their food. Still feeling sceptical? Too Good To Go’s website states that since 2016, the company saved over 746,760 meals in the U.K. alone.
Talking to Screen Shot about Too Good To Go’s early days, marketing manager Anoushka Grover said, “When we first started, the concept of food waste wasn’t really understood. Once you show people the consequences of their actions, everyone is a lot quicker to take a stand and make a change. Conscious consumerism has been on the rise for a number of years, but we’ve definitely seen it snowballing over the last few years”. So what’s next for Too Good To Go? “We have set some goals for 2020 which include inspiring 50 million people to take action against food waste, partnering with 75,000 food businesses, impacting legislation in 5 countries and supporting 500 schools in educating about food waste, ultimately saving 100 million meals from landfill”, Anoushka told us.
The last element that could make a big change in this food waste cycle is technology. We frequently use it to solve other problems, so why not try implementing it here as well? IKEA is attempting to cut food waste in its kitchens (think about all those meatballs) with an AI bin designed to recognise and monitor what gets thrown away. This ‘intelligent’ bin was made by U.K. technology startup Winnow Vision and uses a camera and smart scales to keep track of what types of food end up in the rubbish bin. Winnow estimates that it has saved almost $30 million worth of food so far.
Awareness of food waste is definitely there and on the rise, but the global response it has received so far is inadequate considering the size of the problem. We need to understand that food waste is not only happening on our tables, it’s also happening with farms and food companies, meaning that all the resources that went into making your food go to waste as well.
There is currently a lack of data and research that are needed in order to accurately estimate the full social, economic, and environmental benefits of food waste reduction. That said, let us be mindful of the bigger picture and make a change—whether it’s by scraping off mould on your jam like Theresa, contributing to the Brixton Pound Cafe, or using apps like Too Good To Go.
This article is a result of our Screen Shot workshop held at the V&A on Friday 28 June during the FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition. In this participatory installation and therapy session, participants gave us the ingredients for the perfect food waste article.