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AI and Food Innovation

While this article was not written with the help of AI, the main visual for this article was indeed created with Shutterstock’s AI visual generator tool.

Talk of AI is all around us. How is it revolutionizing food innovation today?

The food industry innovates constantly with new tastes that excite and delight consumers. So far, food companies have mined the wonders of nature in the lab and uncovered the secrets of how various people use flavors in their cultures to create many new combinations. Look at the flavored water section of your local food shop to get a sense of the diversity and new choices.

For food scientists and innovation teams, it has become increasingly difficult to find new flavors that can win in the market and make the kind of profit companies seek. At the same time, the industry is hard-pressed to help find solutions for climate change and healthier ways of eating. That’s why new technologies, such as AI, are now being used to help find new flavors that might convince us to switch to more plant-based eating and thus reduce our carbon footprint.

AI opens up new horizons for both food professionals and tomorrow’s consumers.

Flavour formulation

The number of startups that have sprung up to help generate flavor combinations using AI is impressive. The goal is to find new winning taste formulations that are scalable, profitable, and at the right price.

The biggest AI use case for innovative flavor formulation is in the plant-based sector for alternatives to dairy-based products. How can we invent plant-based products that taste like their animal counterparts?

Plant-based dairy is having its AI moment

Plant-based cheese has a 5% US household penetration, which is quite small, especially in comparison with the 41% penetration of plant-based milk reported by the Good Food Institute. In terms of dollar size, Facts and Factors estimates the plant-based cheese market (dairy-free) was US$1.9 billion globally in 2022. However, while the plant-based cheese market may be smaller today, the penetration rate remains low, so there is lots of room to grow. The sector is growing fast and has become an area of intense innovation that increasingly relies on AI. Today, there are four areas of plant-based cheese innovation: oil/starch-based, nut-based, seed-based, and casein-based.

Startup AI-based company, Climax Foods, is in this hot area. Climax is helping big brands like Bel with casein-based, plant-based cheese inventions. Bel’s AI-driven new products are built using AI to make plant-based cheeses “indistinguishable” from the melt, stretch, and taste of animal-based cheese.

Bel is using Climax Foods’ “precision formulation” process, which, they claim, “employs data science and AI to find ingredient and process combinations.” Using AI, they can shorten the time to discover new flavor combinations that produce winning – and scalable – formulations. AI acts today as a “helper” to scientists to speed up discovery.

How do the AI tools work exactly?

Startups haven’t revealed the intricacies of how exactly their algorithm works, but many are fast partnering with leading food corporations who understand their powerful potential. We know that AI tools match up – at the molecular level – the exponential tastes, textures, and smells that might work well together. The tools also sort out which plant-based flavors might replicate animal-based products. Financial data is also fed into the algorithm to help identify which formulation can be profitably produced at scale.

Copying dairy from animals by substituting plant flavors is just one type of innovation. The technology can also be used for plant-based flavors that mimic meat. Meati Foods, a company developing new products using mushrooms (mycelium) that might taste like meat, is doing just that in partnership with AI technology from PIPA.[4] Tomorrow, we might use it to create new kinds of snack bars… and beyond.

AI will revolutionize the food innovation process

At the EmTech 2023 conference, Kraft Heinz revealed that it has partnered with a European-based company that uses AI on flavor combinations. They are experimenting with several companies, including Chilean “The Not Company.” Kraft Heinz created a joint venture with them “designed to reimagine global food production and advance toward a more sustainable future.” Mars and Shake Shack are also working with NotCo. Like Climax, NotCo claims to have the ability to use AI to find “infinite combinations of plants to replicate animal products and make them even tastier and sustainable.”

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