Photo: McCormick's.

Today spice giant McCormick announced that it is partnering with IBM to create a research coalition to explore how artificial intelligence (AI) can improve flavor and food product development.

According to the press release, McCormick will use IBM Research AI for Product Composition to “explore flavor territories more quickly and efficiently” and “predict new flavor combinations from hundreds of millions of data points across the areas of sensory science, consumer preference, and flavor palettes.” In short: McCormick is applying IBM’s AI/machine learning power to their own taste data in an effort to develop better-tasting products more quickly — and with fewer duds.

The first product platform, called “ONE,” will debut mid-2019, and will include a set of one-dish Recipe Mixes, which I’m assuming are spice packets. The mixes are meant to season both a protein and a vegetable and come in flavors like Tuscan Chicken and New Orleans Sausage. McCormick is aiming to have them on grocery shelves by spring of this year.

To learn more about the ONE platform, we spoke with McCormick’s Chief Science Officer Hamed Faridi. “This technology uses multiple machine learning algorithms that are trained on information, including hundreds of millions of data points across the areas of sensory science, decades of past McCormick product formulas and information related to consumer taste preferences and palettes,” he told the Spoon. “What distinguishes the new system is its ability to learn and improve every time [it] is being used by our product and flavor developers.”

Unlike McCormick consumer-facing Flavorprint, which drew on recipe search histories to recommend new flavors and recipes, the ONE platform is purely internal. However, Faridi made it clear that the ONE platform would not replace consumer taste testing. “AI can’t taste flavors in the same way a human can,” he said. However, it will seriously up the speed of new product development. Faridi said that the AI system would let McCormick create new flavors up to three times faster, giving the company more agility so it could quickly develop products to take advantage of new dining trends.

Anytime the term “AI” — or the even trendier “machine learning” — is used by a Big Food company or fast food chain, it’s wise to take it with a grain of salt. As buzzwords, AI and machine learning can sometimes be more of a marketing gimmick than a value add.

That’s not to say that there aren’t several companies successfully leveraging AI to improve flavor. In fact, last year I wrote a piece predicting that services combining flavor and AI would be a new food tech trend. Analytical Flavor Systems has an AI-powered flavor prediction platform to help companies develop new food products with less trial and error. Plantjammer uses AI to help home cooks make better plant-based dishes. And Foodpairing applies AI to its flavor database to help professional chefs develop more innovative recipes. But these are smaller, tech-driven startups that have built their service based around AI from the beginning. For Big Food, AI is sometimes as much of a promotional tool as an actual service.

Since McCormick is working with IBM, its new platform seems more like a serious effort than, say, Dominos’. But is McCormick, as it states in the aforementioned press release, “ushering in a new era of flavor innovation and changing the course of the industry”? Probably not. But then again, I haven’t tried that New Orleans Sausage recipe mix.

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