Genetic testing company, 23AndMe, can determine where your ancestors hail from, if you’re at risk for certain medical conditions, and, apparently, your favorite ice cream flavor.
Well, as long as it’s either chocolate or vanilla. A few days ago 23AndMe released a trait report that, among other things, can estimate whether you’re more likely to prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream (h/t Food & Wine).
The company used data from 980,000 23AndMe research participants to determine a statistical model which showed whether each person was predestined to prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream (those are the only two flavors the report covers). The same report can also indicate users’ preference for salty or sweet snacks, as well as whether or not they have an aversion to cilantro. 23AndMe has done similar preference reports centered on beer in the past.
Having the power to determine whether someone likes chocolate or vanilla ice cream based on their DNA is obviously not a groundbreaking use of genetic science. Most people know their favorite ice cream flavors already (Team Mint Chocolate Chip!), and if they don’t, it’s pretty darn easy to find out.
Take a longer view, however, and it becomes clear how this sort of technology could have significant implications for the future of food personalization. As food becomes more and more digitized, companies can access your profile to determine dietary preferences, allergens, and general preferences.
It’s starting to happen already. McDonald’s has begun using Dynamic Yield to suggest new menu items to drive-thru customers based off of external factors like weather, trends, etc. But as The Spoon founder Mike Wolf pointed out recently, right now “personalized doesn’t really mean personalized, but instead it just means something slightly different based on a set of localized and current environmental factors.” Add DNA into the mix, and personalized could mean not only personalized based on your purchase history or pre-set preferences, but based on your actual genetics.
There are a ton of ways that companies could use your genetic predispositions to sell you more food tweaked towards your exact tastes. Perhaps your phone would ping you to try a new seasonal flavor at a brewery, or your local taco spot could know to automatically omit cilantro from your online orders. At best, these sort of nudges would make you try something new or save you from picking off cilantro. At worst, they’re super annoying.
However, providing this sort of data could have a lot bigger implications than just marketing nudges. What happens if the food you should or shouldn’t eat based on you genes gets shared not just with a restaurant, but also with your insurance company? Do you want it (and their rate hikes) keeping tabs on what you order? That’s a pretty extreme example, but your genetic makeup is the ultimate in private data. Revealing and sharing it could have far-reaching consequences which are not always obvious, or pleasant.
Gattaca stuff aside, this sort of granular data could present a big opportunity to personalized food companies like Spoonshot, Tastewise, or Analytical Flavor System. Right now they rely on external factors like consumer trends and the molecular makeup of food, but add DNA into the mix and they have an entirely new —and extremely personal— dataset with which to design your ideal flavor combination. CPG brands could, in turn, use these hyper-personalized flavor preferences to then sell to you through hyper-targeted marketing. Futuristic, sure — but not honestly, it’s probably not that far out.
There’s also the fact that living in a world where all your taste choices are predetermined sounds kind of, well, boring. Because even if I know that I love mint chocolate chip, I still like the excitement and the (admittedly tiny) risk of trying a new flavor, and waiting to see if I’ll like it or not.
23AndMe users can check out their ice cream flavor preference report here.