By: Rafael Tonon
What does the post-truth era can tell us about what we eat?
That’s a sad truth: in the post-truth era, it’s been harder and harder to find food that’s all real. Many companies are more concerned about the well-designed labels they create than the ingredients they claim to have inside their packages. Most of the times, alternative facts seem to matter more to them than the real ones…
On the one hand, perhaps this is a reflection of the current times we are living in – in which a certain escapism seems interesting to make us forget a little about our harsh reality. Food industry was taken over by storytelling strategies while chefs are trying to create authentic experiences for diners inside their restaurants.
“People are more eager to have experiences, they want to eat stories — and it doesn’t matter if they are real, as long as you make it seem real.”, recently told me a famous chef.
But the point is when these “stories”, instead of entertaining (which has its merits), serve to deceive the consumer, something that unfortunately has become more common in the big food industry. The problem is not believing in fairy tales, but not being able to believe in reality.
The question is: do you really trust in the food you eat? It’s no news to anyone that what’s inside the package doesn’t usually correspond to what ‘s written on it. In the recently released book Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics, authors Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple bring together historical examples of food frauds, such as the habit of adding water to milk to increase its volume. In India, they found reports of milk contaminated with caustic soda and shampoo in its formulas. And talk about a classic case in China where impostors made fake eggs using sodium alginate and paraffin.
Closer to us, the cases are as not as serious, but very common nevertheless. The salmon of our sushi, the grass-fed beef of our artisanal hamburguer or the alcoholic shots of our cocktail may not be what we expect.
A survey by Interpol pointed to more than 2,500 tonnes of adulterated food in 47 countries – most of them products we consume daily, such as cheese, milk, eggs and oil.
It is nonetheless symptomatic that new technologies have come up to warn us about this. 6SensorLabs, for example, is a technology company that created a portable and smartphone-connected allergen device that allows its users to check, through a laser bean, the presence or not of gluten in food – they have as target celiac people.
Their assumption is that, in these “gluten-free trend” times, many companies and even restaurants want to ride the trend, but in fact they do not care about the disease – “gluten-free” words in the menu is a way to attract more people. The same goes for lactose, for example, the next device they are developing.
Tellspec, another tech company, also designed a handheld device that is able to scan food at a molecular level to identify calories, macronutrients, contaminants, and alert the user regarding food fraud and adulteration. The sensor comes with a pocket-sized spectrometer linked to a cloud-based analysis engine that gives you all the information about the analized food in your smartphone using bluetooth.
Many other companies, even huge ones, are developing data-based technologies that can recognize your food when you are about to take a picture of them for your social media: through the photos, they will identify your food and give you information about a well-balanced diet – and what you should have included in your plate, through 3D recognition.
Nutrition (alternative) facts
To help people understand the truths (and some “alternative facts”) behind nutritional facts labels, Sage Project created a data platform that, using bright visualizations that explain what you’re eating, allows consumers to have clearer information about foods and its ingredients, where they came from, how they might affect one’s health, etc.
By creating a profile on the platform, you can add special dietary needs or allergies, or whether you’re looking for organic food or a company that doesn’t use slave labor, and Sage can filter for foods that fit your wishes.
All these technologies are a clear indication that we have been trusting less and less our food industry, and we need, more than ever, allied weapons to know exactly what we are putting in our mouths. If on the one hand it is sad that we have to doubt everything in order to have a better diet, on the other hand it is indicative that we are building a closer – and more true, anyway – relationship with the food we eat. Maybe it can be a begining of a “post-lie” era foodwise.