The role of AI in the future food industry

Talk of a new transformative technology propelling the food industry into the future makes one most likely to...
January 29, 2024 Commentary
The role of AI in the future food industry

Talk of a new transformative technology propelling the food industry into the future makes one most likely to think about cellular agriculture or precision fermentation and not about artificial intelligence (AI). Yet its influence on a more efficient, sustainable, and nutritious food industry is beginning to grow.

Most quickly being adopted in manufacturing, AI is being incorporated into almost every industry you can think of, from healthcare to entertainment to, yes, even food.

AI is expected to reach a market size of around AU$53B in the global food and beverage industry by 2028, and the various applications of the technology are becoming ever more present among alternative protein companies as AI becomes the talk of the town amongst those in the know.

Creating firsts through accelerated innovation

Gone are the days of trial and error as innovation meets the efficiency of artificial intelligence. With its machine learning capabilities and unique ability to sift through vast datasets at speed, AI is creating a trail of firsts by accelerating research, optimising production processes and ingredient formulations, and ultimately bringing new products to market at record pace.

In June 2023, Climax Foods declared they had created the world’s first plant casein, the sustainable and comparatively priced breakthrough emerging from the utilisation of AI to streamline the process of discovering ideal ingredient and process combinations.

More recently, Swiss food tech start-up Planetary and Japanese tech company Konica Minolta partnered to work on a ‘first-of-its-kind’ solution that relies on advanced sensing and AI to optimise precision fermentation production.

Overcoming challenges in the industry

New and innovative solutions are necessary to push through the plethora of challenges this nascent industry now faces. Food Frontier research shows, that above all else, price, taste, and nutrition matter the most when it comes to increasing the uptake of alternative proteins.

Australian consumers are some of the most price-sensitive grocery shoppers in the world, yet Food Frontier’s 2020 price-point analysis showed that on average, plant-based meat products were 49% more expensive than their conventional meat counterparts.

Price parity becomes a reality as seen with Climax Foods plant-based casein, its production of the protein at scale will be price equivalent to animal-based casein.

Companies are also using AI to tackle another problem: taste and texture.

Amongst those consciously limiting their meat consumption, the inferior taste of plant-based meat alternatives is a barrier for 45% of flexitarians and 58% of meat-reducers. Chilean plant-based company NotCo has been using its AI platform Giuseppe since 2021. Its algorithm analyses the animal-based food at a molecular level and then seeks to closely replicate it in flavour, texture, scent and functionality by searching through a library of more than 300,000 plant ingredients.

While overcoming price and taste barriers is critical to success, health has continuously shown to be the number one motivator driving increased interest in plant-based eating. AI can also help in this instance, with companies such as Live Green Co. working on clean labels (making a product with as easily recognisable and few ingredients as possible). Meanwhile, PawCo is harnessing AI to enhance nutrition for cultivated dog food.

What’s happening in Australia and New Zealand?

AI is already influencing the broader food industry in Australia and New Zealand. Australia-based BiomeMega has combined the powers of precision fermentation and AI to develop omega-3 oils from soil and water bacteria extracts. CSIRO has broad AI capabilities, leading the establishment of Australia’s National AI Centre, venture capital Main Sequence has put money behind AI start-ups, and flavour house Kerry is using its Trendspotter algorithm to scan millions of social media posts to  predict upcoming food and beverage trends and gain critical consumer insights.

With the use of AI becoming a mainstream tool across all businesses, the opportunities for food companies to streamline product development, rapidly find new ingredient possibilities, understand more clearly consumer preferences, and create more compelling marketing campaigns, will see AI become as ubiquitous as the spreadsheet. The core benefits of AI­—speed to value, lower R&D costs, rapid search of unstructured data, and hyper-fast analysis—will become key capabilities in food industry. A year from now, the question won’t be “who’s using AI?” it will be “who isn’t?”

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