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Will the iPhone transform the food industry?

Looking up food on iPhone

There’s limited time for a strict fitness and diet regime, we’re too busy juggling competing priorities.

This can negatively impact our long term wellbeing. Smart manufacturers are exploring new technology to help us, and this technology is poised to change the food industry as we know it.

Thirty nine per cent of employees polled in CEB’s Q4 2014 Global Workforce Insights Report ranked work-life balance as one of the top five reasons to choose a new job, making work-life balance second only to compensation as the most commonly cited attraction driver, globally.

Statistics in a hiring report, by recruitment specialist Hudson, show work-life balance is the top priority for Australian jobseekers in 2015.

We know through watching documentaries and television advertising, and sometimes hard experience, that adopting a healthy lifestyle is better for us. But, we could all do with some help sticking to it. Traditional options include personal trainers and gym memberships.

However, smart manufacturers are now exploring new avenues using technology which has the potential to fundamentally change the food industry.

The cost of healthcare

Lifestyle and non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) are one of the biggest issues facing society. The cost to the community as a result of NCD’s is staggering.

A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute suggested obesity alone cost the health system USD 2 trillion annually.

In the United States, healthcare consumes 17.9 per cent of the GDP. This figure is 9.4 per cent in the UK, 8.8 per cent in South Africa and 9 per cent in Australia. The global average is 10.5 per cent.

Of greater concern is the growing rate of healthcare costs across all jurisdictions. The potential cost implications, when superimposing the impacts of rising population in emerging regions and ageing populations in developed countries on these domains, are simply unsustainable.

Whilst not all this spend is a function of food related conditions, there is an increasing awareness that the solution lies beyond adding more health facilities.

Additionally, there is growing recognition that if food and lifestyle habits created the problem, they could equally be a vector for the solution.

Food manufacturers have a window to jump on board and capitalise on the opportunity this juxtaposition presents. And, technology, we believe, will be a pathway to the solution.

The power of the smart phone

The power of the smart phone has increased exponentially in recent years. The advent and popularity of application based software has dramatically increased functionality. Now, perhaps only imagination limits what is possible.

Leveraging the trend today are smart phone manufacturers and manufacturers of wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit and the UP fitness tracker.

Through smart phone fitness accessories we are already monitoring activities like sleep patterns and gym workout sessions.

Manufacturers are now able to embed intelligence and connectivity into all sorts of devices, including training drink bottles and personal weighing scales. All sync’d to fitness and wellness dashboards on laptop and mobile devices.

What though of the other side of the health and wellbeing equation? What of diet and nutrition?

Many manufacturers of appliances and certain electrical goods currently build applications which can provide information direct to the consumer about a product and its features. Applications can also provide additional services around the product, as well as insights into how the product was constructed, its origin, even its carbon footprint. However, this is not as common in the food industry and hence an opportunity exists.

Nutritional intake apps are available that assist in counting calorie intake and meal selection at restaurants. This is, however, only the tip of the iceberg.

We agree it is much harder to monitor and track nutritional intake. The requirement for manual input of information by most applications is time consuming and requires discipline. However, we believe this is one area where the food and electronics industries could converge with dramatic results.

Keep it simple

Most food products contain nutritional content as part of federal requirements. Many consumers find this information difficult to understand and even more difficult to translate into a holistic nutritional diet plan. Specific dietary needs, such as gluten free, make it harder still.

Manufacturers who are able to find the balance between meeting regulatory requirements and providing consumers with clear information would both solve a problem and create added value around their products. Digital redesigns are definitely on the horizon and those who are ready will lead the pack.

Ways to do this might include: intelligent supermarket shelving that contains product information, such as nutrition, freshness, specific dietary preferences or allergens, communicable with mobile smart devices; supermarket navigation synchronised to a shopping list; recipe suggestions or food substitute options; and the development of food products with enhanced nutritional values for different price points, for example organic raw foods, which are typically more expensive than their mass produced counterparts due to their perceived higher quality, flavour and nutritional value.

For the environmentally conscious the information could incorporate data around carbon footprint in the production of the product, as well as information related to its freshness and provenance and cooking suggestions.

Food Safety is of primary importance to all food manufacturers. By embedding sensors, manufacturers are now able to digitise their production processes and supply chains to show in real time where and when a food item was harvested and each of its steps along the production line. Making this information available to consumers via their smart phones, would inform them as they make their purchasing choices.

Technology and innovation can aid the cascade of this thinking to all varieties of food products.

Technology a pathway to the future

Online shopping for food and consumables, a growing trend in many developed economies, could be readily sync’d in to nutritional and wellness dashboards.

Through its Health Sciences Group, Nestle, the world’s largest food manufacturer, is investing heavily in the concept of personalised nutrition. The concept explores the possibility of tailoring food products to an individual’s specific health needs, be that monitoring a mineral or vitamin deficiency, or a genetic predisposition.

On this path toward personalised food, and as food becomes a key vector for treating disease and enhancing wellness, an essential stepping stone is the convergence between electronics and food informatics that is universally communicated and interconnected.

To achieve this requires building the apps, as well as capturing and data mining all food production, carbon footprint, nutritional value, freshness and source data, from the start of the food supply chain, through production, processing, distribution and delivery.

The sensors and technology to capture this data exist. They are, in many instances, currently in place but used for different purposes.

The opportunity for manufacturers lies in embracing these inevitable trends. Those viewing such initiatives as an additional investment (beyond the current business as usual production imperatives) may lag behind or possibly disappear.

This paints a picture of a very different food production facility. It paints the picture of a technologically rich, data gathering, production process and supply chain, communicating seamlessly and transparently in real time about all aspects of the provenance and process of production.

If fitness and wellness trends continue on their current path, and there is nothing to suggest otherwise, the call to manufacturers is to think beyond just the production and processing of food, to the data collection and health benefits they can bring direct to individuals.

Smart technology allows any manufacturer to talk directly and individually to a consumer.

Smart manufacturers will adjust their production processes and supply chains, and potentially product lines, and embrace the technological change to do just that.

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