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How Technology Is Changing What We Eat

Technology's notable impact on how and what we eat

If you’re old enough to have watched “The Jetson’s,” the first moon landing or “Lost in Space” you’ve always known that technology would impact what you ate for dinner. Maybe you imagined that kitchen clean-up problems would be solved by tidy meal pills or space pouch food, or that ovens would be replaced by ray-guns that could cook a golden-brown turkey in seconds.

Fast forward to 2012 and technology has indeed had a notable impact on how and what we eat. Not because it’s changed the way we cook, but more because it’s changed who we are, how we think, and opened up, literally, a world of options.

Depending on how old you are and how much you use technology, you may have noticed some of these commonly documented side effects of our increasingly wired lives:

  • We get bored more easily, the bar is higher when it comes to stimulation
  • The world seems smaller. Foreign isn’t foreign anymore
  • We’re more open to trying new things. With every new version of our computer or cell phone we have a crystalized belief that “new is better”
  • We’re better at multi-tasking. In fact we can’t help but multi task because we get distracted more easily and we’re more impatient
  • We’re more self-reliant and resourceful when it comes to finding information

Preparing and eating food is one of the most fundamental activities of humanity. It’s only natural that we’ll see changes in our psychology reflected how we choose to shop and cook, and what we want to eat. Here are some examples of how technology has shaped our food preferences and the innovative ways the food industry is responding.

McCormick, the leading spice company in the country has recently launched a advertising campaign touting the multi-tasking capabilities of its products. From the antioxidant capabilities of oregano and pepper, to brain-saving turmeric - adding a pinch of good health along with flavor appeals to the multi-tasker in all of us. The success of products ranging from Vitamin Water to probiotic jalapeno dip is a testament to our love of innovation and our expectation that everyone and everything can and should do more than one thing at a time.

Turmeric, by the way, will one of the top food trends of 2012. The vivid yellow spice commonly used in Thai, Indian and Persian dishes also gets a boost in appeal from our craving for more variety and global flavors. Twenty five years ago ravioli, tacos and egg rolls were ethnic dining. There’s very little that’s considered “foreign” today, in part because of our hyper-connected world.

We’re also craving more intensity and stimulation from our food. Witness the success of Domino’s jalapeno “The Revenge” pizza, Firey Pepper Southern Comfort, chili and bacon chocolate, black pepper ice cream and mango mint gum - clearly the bar for stimulation and sensation has been raised.

There’s a double-edged sword to all these options, namely the anxiety of wondering if we should have picked something better and the mental overload of constantly making ever more complicated decisions.

To give ourselves a mental break we’re making purchasing decisions in different ways. For one, we speed up the process by relying more on visual and symbolic communication and less on explanations and verbal information. Things like a brand’s association with other brands, what others are saying about a product, event sponsorship and sampling have more impact than company-driven messaging. Our perception of products seeps into consciousness through multiple flashes of information from a wide variety of sources rather than through actively and purposefully thinking through a product’s characteristics.

For example, the astounding growth and success of San Francisco start-up Popchips has a lot to do with how the company promoted the product. It’s precisely in line with the way that our techno-fueled brains process information. Consumers’ positive perception of Popchips was acquired through multiple channels: association with trusted distribution outlets like Jamba Juice, Virgin Airlines, Costco and Whole Foods; buzz generated from fans like Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Jessica Parker; a massive giveaway program; advertising; and a strong social media campaign. Granted, Popchips are great chips, but lots of terrific products have failed - especially in the crowded snack food category. Popchips’ messaging was key to its success.

Innovation cycles much more quickly than ever before. While it may be inspired by our craving for stimulation, it’s fueled by online resources, food programs and videos. Ever more resourceful and self-reliant consumers use information from trusted blogs, tweets, promotions and online reviews for ideas, inspiration and the reassurance to try new things. Fully 65% of women are a friend or fan of a brand on Facebook. McKinsey research has found that ⅔ of what shoppers learn about products today is driven by the consumer, not the seller. This moves new products more quickly into mainstream usage.

With all this time spent online (and more complicated lives) we’re increasingly bereft of the time and mental focus required to cook and shop the way we did a decade ago. Besides, things like washing, boning and peeling are more boring to our speed demon brains. To the rescue are kits for everything from salads to pot roast.

Kits also satisfy the “I want what I want when I want it” side effect of technology. Today, anytime, anywhere convenience is key. Part of McDonald’s strong earnings are the result of their fastest growing time segment which is from midnight to 5:00 AM. Now available in France, and no doubt soon to arrive in the US, are 24 hour baguette vending machines that finish off a par-baked loaf on command. In Japan you can shop at a virtual grocery store in your train station and have your selections waiting for you when you arrive at your destination.

From a consumer psychologist’s perspective, we really are what we eat. Technology isn’t the only socio-cultural factor that’s influenced food trends. The economy, demographic shifts and environmentalism have also impacted what we want and how we shop and eat. Consumer psychology is most known as the secret sauce of successful marketing - but it’s also a window into the shifting needs, desires and motivations of societies.