Technology Ramps Up to Satisfy Appetite for Information About Our Food

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Deborah Arcoleo
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Director Product Transparency, The Hershey Company

Over the past few years, the appetite for more information about food has grown tremendously. There are a number of reasons for this demand: people have a general thirst for knowledge and a simple desire to eat a more balanced diet. The proliferation and democratization of data has only accelerated this trend.

Consumers have questions about a whole host of information: the origin of the product, what the ingredients are and why they are used, from where those ingredients came, the nutritional values, potential allergens and even how the product was manufactured, among other things. Accurate information about all aspects of our food is no longer a desire, but an expectation. This trend is not going to ebb anytime soon – and it shouldn’t.

The smart food producers, whether they are farmers, manufacturers or even retailers, are working hard to respond accordingly to this shift. The nutrition label is no longer a viable option when it comes to giving consumers the information they need to make choices about their food. One of the fastest and best ways to respond is through technology that puts the information at consumers’ fingertips and there have been some significant breakthroughs on just how to do that.

What is fascinating to me is that companies outside the traditional food chain are using existing technology yet cultivating it in a new way. I was particularly intrigued by a recent Fast Company story that highlighted an incubator partnership between the retailer Target, MIT’s Media Lab and Ideo to undertake a number of initiatives to expand food transparency. They are working on projects that include spectrometers to scan the molecular makeup of perishable foods as well as a computer that actually helps direct the growth and development of a food-bearing plant.

The spectrometer can help analyze the age and potential nutritional value of food, providing valuable information. For example, fruits and vegetables lose a lot of their nutritional value by the time they get to store shelves – but with this analysis we can hopefully figure out better ways to speed delivery from the farm to the store and on to your table.

As is true with most incubator projects, some of these ideas may come up short and others may guide our future food knowledge. But the fact that a company the size of Target, with $73 billion in annual revenue, is taking food knowledge so seriously puts significant weight behind this endeavor and should excite consumers that more information is on the way.

It’s interesting to think about what impact this type of technology might have on food labeling. Is it possible that one day consumers will have more details about the molecular structure of the food they’re buying than even say the manufacturer? If you think about fruits and vegetables today, at best they have a country of origin label on them, but that’s if the sticker stays on. It’s amazing to think about the impact – we might not even need a label.

While spectrometers are still a ways off, you could say that SmartLabel™ is a current example of technology enabling transparency. I was part of the team at Hershey that helped the industry develop this solution, which you’ll find on our Hershey’s Kisses milk chocolates and new SoFit protein snack products. Consumers simply scan a QR code to instantly get details on nutritional information, ingredients, allergens, sourcing information and more. It’s a start, and we’re rolling it out across all of our products by 2017.

I know some will probably question whether these kinds of transparency initiatives make sense because some consumers may not have smartphones. But the responsibility isn’t all on the consumer. Retailers could help immensely with scanners in store aisles. Some already have price-check scanners, so can we find a way to integrate label scanners?

With all that technology enables, it’s going to be incumbent upon food companies to make sure that information is available and gets into consumers’ hands. The demand is growing and we must rise to the occasion.

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