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SIAL explores : "Food hacking" or the new artisan food industry

by the SIAL Paris team - Actualité

In this time of hackers, handymen, and do-it-yourselfers, the practice of food hacking is becoming increasingly dominant.  But what is a “food hacker?” For some, it means experimenting with food, for others it’s more about exploring food through such disciplines as neuroscience. In reality, food hacking aims to invent new forms of food and to push the boundaries of reality. In this article, SIAL tracks down a few hacking culture experts to learn a bit about their experiments in revolutionary cooking and eating, and explore their hackerspaces, fab labs, and other evolutionary spaces. 

Tastebridge: the return of the artisan movement

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Mission Street, San Francisco, 2169. You’ve arrived at Noisebridge, one of the biggest hackerspaces in the bay. It is dominated by the do-it-yourself culture, whose rallying cry is “power to the people.” Here, some people like to talk about the Do-ocracy, a sub-movement of the larger “Age of DIY,” in which people are creators more than consumers. These modern-day tinkerers and their geek chic could have fit easily into 60s counterculture.

For them, the artisanal movement has become a way of life. Simon Klose, a reporter for Munchies, who explores the issue of food hacking in Asia for his new series Food Hacking Japan, reminds us that behind the term “food hacking” lie two intersecting movements: those of the makers and the hackers, respectively.

For the makers, the focus is on the culture of doing—of manufacturing. Their priorities? “Working together” and sharing food experiences. The maker movement has been democratized by 3D printing, which allows the industrial process to shift from factories to houses. And when it comes to cooking, Noisebridge is an authority thanks to a proprietary program, dubbed Tastebridge, and its community of amateur biologists and programmers.  On the agenda: workshops on making your own vinegar and beer, and even  mushroom farming.

Garage Lab: changing the taste of food

For the hacker movement, the practice of food hacking takes on a more technological dimension, effectively turning cooking into engineering. This inspired Simon Klose to explore these hackers’ laboratories—or “maker spaces”—in Asia, like the Garage Lab, where research professor Yoshiaki NAKANO offers a laser cutter that reduces cooking times and executes food design.

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Around the tinkerers’ table sit the creators, scientists, and coders who work together to invent new ways to prepare food. Their ambition is to understand how cooking and science can harmonize.  

This is the goal of Takuji Narumi, assistant research professor in virtual reality and cyber interface at the University of Tokyo, who sees food hacking as an opportunity to experiment with the mind. His research asks the following question: What if it were possible to manipulate our senses to transform (augment or diminish) our meals?

For example, his drink project Ghost Juice plays with colors to give us the illusion of a different flavor.

“Food hacking is a really an experiment with the human senses,” he explains to Simon Klose.

In the style of the Turing test or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Maelzel’s Chess Player” this researcher in machine interfaces sees the technique as a way to trick the body and manipulate the senses. But Takuji is not a black hat, a hacker-cracker term for a criminal. Just take a look at his other projects, like Meta-Cookie. The technology (a 3D virtual reality headset) is in fact offering solutions for some serious food-related problems, like the battle against obesity. The Meta-Cookie project applies virtual reality to the culinary field in order to regulate the amount of food we eat and play with our sense of satiety.

“If the food looks bigger, you feel full; if we shrink it, you can eat more,” Takuji explains.

But the reverse is also true! He calls this augmented satiety, in other words: a means of correcting our bad eating habits. For the agri-food and restaurant industries, Takuji is going even further by imagining this same work on the psychology of perception, but this time without the 3D glasses. 

His inspiration relies on certain optical illusions that affect our eating habits, like the work of the Belgian mathematician, philosopher, and psychologist Joseph Delboeuf, known for his eponymous “Delboeuf Illusion.” The idea behind it is that the same circle will appear bigger when it is surrounded by a slightly larger concentric circle, and vice versa. Takuji’s idea is to create virtual plates that constantly adapt to what we eat in order to create a false perception of how much food we have ingested, and thereby master the way our brains process information. This effect is itself shaped by our tertiary retentions (R3), a process of technical individuation. 

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Simulation, manipulation of the senses... Meta Cookie goes even further, by actually changing the taste of food. By superimposing images on the cookie, the computer directly affects our perception of it. A plain cookie takes on the qualities of a chocolate cookie. The smell of chocolate adds to the illusion and succeeds in fooling us completely.  

Playing with the senses is also the work of Hiromi Nakamura, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Tokyo, who plans to work on taste experiments. Her proposal is to create new flavors by using electricity. 

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Hiromi plays with the five basic tastes: sweet/salty, bitter/sour, and umami, a molecule (glutamate) named E621, well known in the agri-food industry as a flavor enhancer. The objective is to enhance or diminish the intensity of our olfactory-gustatory perception of foodstuffs by using the Electric Fork. Hiromi postulates that electricity might have the ability to make flavors reversible by stimulating our sensory taste cells. Her research explores the concept of “electric taste” and aims to add a touch of electricity to our meals.

In an interesting mechanical twist, Hiromi seeks to control computers with taste buds, and is also attempting to transpose flavors into music, a process and project she describes as “TasteCloud.” The idea is to upload flavors and then to download them for testing (and tasting) into the electric fork. She sees this as a genuine tool for culinary experimentation that could elevate the art of cooking and open up a new culinary esthetic, one that unites musicians and top chefs!

Will food hacking become a cultural innovation in the agri-food sector, capable of rising to both the major challenges of the 20th century and to the Promethean imperative to renew the tastes and the culinary sensations of our basic commodities? To be continued …