FIGM17: The Disruptive Power of Innovation in California (Part I)

 

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The internet of Food, innovative ice cream, the semiotics of honey, the zero-impact wine cellar of the future, and the food revolution of Good Food Lab. Everything is disruptive with Food Innovation Global Mission

First the Food Valley of Emilia-Romagna, then The Netherlands with Amsterdam and Maastricht, and finally the United States, with the first leg on the East Coast (Boston and New York) and the second in California. It was there in California where our students of the second edition of the Food Innovation Program masters stopped for almost two weeks, discovering prestigious international universities, including the University of California Davis (UC Davis), center of excellence in food innovation thanks to the work of scholars and true food heroes that lead scientific research in the world of food. Among these, former professor in Reggio Emilia, headquarters of the master’s program, is Matthew Lange, professor at the Department of Food Science and Technology, who helped the students analyze and develop a line of research carried out during the Global Mission thanks to the creation of concept maps. The focus of his personal research is a project based around the Internet of Food (IoF), a full-circle study that aims to analyze food from every point of view and standardize the language used to describe it, thus creating a universal system of knowledge to be shared.  

Also at UC Davis, ice cream became a place to experiment with American technology and Italian tradition thanks to the work of Daniela Barile, professor at the Department of Food Science and Technology, who studies the benefits of whey protein, the protein derived from milk, and its nutritional effect on the gut bacteria of humans. Many processes, she explained, including the composition of air and the use of liquid nitrogen, can affect the taste and the production of ice cream, something the students were able to experience in one of the university laboratories. The 14 talents were put to the test, helping create innovative flavors such as avocado with chocolate, mascarpone and fresh pear covered in pistachios, and others that celebrated Italian tradition, like balsamic vinegar and Lambrusco using raw materials direct from Reggio Emilia.

But ice cream wasn’t the only sweet that the delegation rediscovered. Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center, explained how to analyze the different flavors and tastes of honey thanks to the Honey Flavor Wheel, a word categorization method for taste analysis. Each student was asked to taste different types of honey and describe the flavor and aromas. Despite coming from 12 different countries — Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, India, Ethiopia, Turkey, the United States, Jordan, and Egypt — the use of the same words showed that food is indeed a universal language.

The experience at UC Davis allowed our students to meet many food heroes, like the young, blind,  food researcher Henry Wedler, who introduced the group to his way of approaching food chemistry through other senses like smell and taste with a blindfolded tasting of three different types of olive oil. At the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, one of the most important research centers on viticulture in the world, students learned how to produce zero impact wine together with Roger Boulton from the oenology department, who showed how the on-campus wine cellar of the future uses high-class technology and is fully independent, thanks to the use of rainwater, solar energy, and a facility that works to reduce carbon emissions. From production to consumption, another important chapter inside the food system studied by the Food Innovation Program masters stemming from the Seeds of Disruption map created by the Institute for the Future of Palo Alto. In fact, with Jean-Xavier Guinard from the department of Food Science and Technology, the discussion centered around the different behaviors and human habits and the consequential relationship with the market.

The stop at UC Davis concluded with a visit to the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility with Kate Scow, professor of soil science. The huge, 122-hectare farm develops two types of projects: the first is the cultivation of corn intended for food production, including that for the astronauts of NASA. The second is the long term and intensive research of the consequences of conventional and organic farming on the soil thanks to the Century Experiment program inaugurated in 1993, that will continue until 2093.

The following days were also dedicated to the pursuit of innovation in educational settings like the Edible Schoolyard Project, where students of the FIGM could discover how their “little classmates” of the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School produce and consume produce cultivated themselves. At the same time, they experienced how universities like San Josè State University, where experts and scholars such as Jan English-Lueck bring together anthropological and food research, demonstrate how the “Silicon Valley Culture” creates an atmosphere of collaboration between various cultures and the food sector.

Another important stop on the tour of major research centers in the area was the Institute for the Future (IFTF) of Palo Alto, academic promoter since the first edition of the Food Innovation Program together with the Future Food Institute and Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia. Here the students were welcomed by the young researcher Sarah Smith who helped them map all the previous stops on the FIGM in order to give substance and organization to the research of individual students and imagine the possible applications, pointing out links between the corporate world that are at the base of this innovative masters and the field experience gained during the Food Innovation Global Mission.

When it comes to innovation there’s a place in California that merits a visit: Google headquarters at Mountain View. A true city of thirty-five thousand employees (coming from all over the Bay Area thanks to the Google Bus) and where each day the future of the planet, and therefore the future of food, is decided. Food, a vehicle of knowledge and aggregation, is found in every aspect at Google: they take classes with renowned chefs, host periodic events with speakers from around the world, and create educational food programs in Bay Area schools to teach the kids of employees a healthy relationship with food. So important is food that “micro-kitchens” are installed in the offices near workstations, often halfway in between different departments, to help colleagues that don’t necessarily work together share ideas over a healthy snack. It was the ideal place for the 14 students of the Food Innovation Global Mission to go to discover food rituals, food icons, and above all the food heroes of the future, including the Global Leader of Google Food, Michiel Bakker, originally from the Netherlands, but a well-known protagonist of the Future Food Institute and supporter of the program from the start.

All began when Google decided to change the paradigm of “Google 20” (the so-called 20 pounds that all new employees were said to gain upon joining Google). Bakker and his team worked to analyze the situation and sometime later became forerunners of concepts that today have become leading practices not just in the Bay Area but around the world. Company cafeterias are no longer places to fill your belly with fried food and sweets but a place to reset the mind and satisfy the body. The Google canteen line begins with appetizers from starred restaurants and moves along to inviting colorful dishes decorated with grace and skill, while carbohydrates are relegated to the end of the path and are rarely chosen. The variety is vast and it’s difficult to taste everything over the course of a week, since the next week the menu changes. The key is simple, beautiful, nutritious, healthy and flavorful food. Staying healthy through food is fundamental, sustainable and replicable, and serves to create a better world with a personalizable approach to food. Through this method Google Food becomes a brand, and the Google Food Lab is today the reference think-tank for global discussions on food innovation issues.

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