In this two-part series, guest contributor Chiara Cecchini explores how flavor may be understood, perceived, and valued in the future, based on insights gained from speaking with industry experts. Part I is more focused on the food system, while Part II delves into new flavor profiling technologies employing big data and AI.

The produce of today is being engineered for color, shape, yield, and shelf life, but it seems like the produce of the future will be optimized for flavor. Horticultural sciences professor Harry Klee is currently breeding a tomato for taste, based on analysis of flavor compounds in heirloom, wild, and modern tomatoes. This endeavor involved sequencing the genomes of over 400 tomato varieties, but his efforts also encompass part of a larger goal. Klee hopes that by understanding the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in fruits and vegetables we can control the synthesis of flavor compounds and create better-tasting food.

In an age where the average supermarket tomato is watery and lackluster and where the generic pea no longer tastes like spring or the earth, an increased focus on flavor from the production side is most welcome. Peter Klosse, author of The Essence of Gastronomy: Understanding the Flavor of Foods and Beverages, asserts that this change may be driven by consumers’ frustrations with flavorless foods.  “Gradually, we’ve grown to changing our traditional agricultural systems to produce flavorless commodities,” Klosse states; according to Harry Klee in “Improving the flavor of fresh fruits: genomics, biochemistry, and biotechnology“, it is now generally accepted that the flavor quality of many fruits has significantly declined over recent decades. But blandness of products does not seem an issue because the food industry has found a way to solve the problem. This is done by incorporating salt, sugar, fats, and chemical additives to restore flavor that has been bred out of food.

Ultimately, a lack of value for produce’s flavor is where it all starts. Supermarkets, focused on getting food from producers to consumers in the most efficient, least costly means possible, want a consistent supply of consistent quality food. And while several food-tech companies are populating the market trying to provide solutions to meet this needs, Corporate farms, urged to meet industry demands, are forced to sacrifice seasonality and sustainability — and consequently, flavor.

“We have lost biodiversity,” Klosse says. “We have lost a lot of individual quality between farms and regions, we are losing varietal differences.” But consumers are starting to notice, and starting to care. Klosse believes innovation in this field should be focused on moving the food system towards regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative systems, involving maintaining biodiversity and using farming techniques that do not damage soil, are also flavor-rich. Food production today emphasizes efficiency and yield; but if the value of flavor — and subsequently the possibility of earning money by cultivating flavorful produce — is reintroduced, farmers can once again grow foods that are both flavorful and sustainable.

Klee’s research articulates the benefits of the older, more natural agricultural practices which Klosse promotes. His team has discovered that modern tomatoes lack the sweetness and rich flavors of heirloom breeds since flavor compounds have been lost over time; bred out as the genes responsible for producing the volatile flavor chemicals are neglected. Supermarket tomatoes are picturesque, hefty globes of firm red flesh. But bite into one and you’ll find that the tanginess, earthiness, and succulent sweetness associated with tomatoes are, well, absent. Beyond replicating Klee’s experiments by taste-testing a variety of tomatoes, Klosse claims we need palpable proof of concept for a regenerative system to convince the industry of its merits.

In short: we need real examples which you can see and touch. “Start small,” he suggests, “take a comprehensive region within the industry, from farmers to retail to consumers, committed to a new way of thinking, and demonstrate that regenerative systems work.”  In my opinion, if more people come to realize that said systems do in fact work, the food system of tomorrow may be one that combines future understandings and research on flavor compound interactions with past ecologically-friendly practices. If what we believe about flavor becoming increasingly prioritized by producers and consumers holds true, then the future of food is a truly appetizing one which we should look forward to.

Additional insights and contributions to this article were made by Audrey Chen

As with smart kitchens, the potential of technology and big data will be harnessed to provide product development solutions. To see two how innovations in digital flavor profiling and AI-powered analytics are revolutionizing the way companies and consumers alike view flavor, check back soon on The Spoon for the second installation of The Future of Flavor.

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Chiara is fascinated by food as a means to impact bodies, minds, and environment. She has studied international business in three different countries, and is an alumni of the Food Innovation Program and US Director at the Future Food Institute. Based in California, she is also a Research Scholar at Food Science and Technology at UC Davis, working on building the first comprehensive Internet of Food to enable food care through food systems semantics. She is a Researcher at the Barilla Center Food Nutrition Foundation, a Research Affiliate at Institute For The Future, Board Member at Maker Faire and a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. She is passionate about social entrepreneurship and impact investing, and aims to leave her mark on society.

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