AI’s Here to Change What You Eat

Pineapple and cabbage milk, anyone?

Key Takeaways

  • The plant-based food industry is growing with alternative options, such as NotMilk that tastes and looks like real milk. 
  • Artificial intelligence can solve some of the food industry’s problems when it comes to efficiency in technology and eliminating the harmful effects of animal products. 
  • Plant-based foods could benefit from AI to make them taste better so more non-vegan customers make the switch.
A person staring at a dairy case in the grocery store.
dowell / Getty Images

The plant-based food industry is booming, but there is still some disconnect in how plant-based options look and taste compared to their animal-made counterparts. Experts in the food industry believe artificial intelligence (AI) is that missing ingredient.

Food-tech company NotCo recently released its plant-based milk, called NotMilk, that looks and tastes like dairy milk, to Whole Foods stores nationwide. The company has mastered the art of creating plant-based foods that taste, feel, and look just like their animal-based counterparts using AI. 

"To me, you have more than 400,000 species of plants in this world that you can explore, and we have no idea what they can do," NotCo founder and CEO Matias Muchnick told Lifewire in a phone interview. "Can they mimic flavors, can they mimic textures—AI explores that."

Why AI? 

Muchnick said there are many problems within the food industry as a whole, but that technology is the main one that needs to be solved. 

"One of the key factors that make the food industry a broken system is specifically the technology on which we were basing all of the construction of the food," he said. "It’s an inefficient process." 

That’s where Muchnick believes AI comes in; By using AI, you eliminate the time it takes to identify which flavor combinations will taste good since advanced machine learning technology is much quicker than the human brain. 

The AI technology NotCo uses is referred to as Giuseppe. Giuseppe taps into dozens of different foods and plant databases to produce plant-based recipes with mind-blowing ingredient combinations, design formulas with specific restrictions, and continuously learns with feedback from chefs and food scientists. 

"When we got the data, what we started to do is to train an algorithm that would allow us to predict ingredients to mimic sensory experience, flavor, textures, functionality, etc.," Muchnick said. "At the end of the day, what you have is that super-powered food scientist that replaces humans without the bias of humans." 

What would typically take humans a trial and error effort of thousands of hours, Giuseppe can think of wild combinations that actually work for plant-based milk, such as pineapple and cabbage. 

Closeup of someone holding an armful of fresh vegetables.
We Are / Getty Images 

Muchnick said Giuseppe gets smarter and smarter with each algorithm tested and that they're always redefining NotMilk’s formula because Giuseppe keeps getting better at predicting the correct formulations. 

"We need to understand food at a molecular level, and AI helps us do that," he said. 

What Problems Can Be Solved?

Aside from creating the right formula for plant-based foods, Muchnick said that AI could also help another huge issue in the food industry: the harmful effects animal products have on the environment. 

According to a 2018 Oxford University study, the single most significant way to reduce your environmental impact is to avoid animal products.

"The food we are making is harming to the world and is not sustainable for the next generation," Muchnick said. "The amount of water and energy we produce is unsustainable and inefficient."

Muchnick said that 90% of NotCo’s customer base is actually not vegan. The driving factor of this group of people purchasing plant-based products over animal products is taste, so getting that right by using AI is essential to switching people over to plant-based. 

"One of the key factors that make the food industry a broken system is specifically the technology on which we were basing all of the construction of the food. It’s an inefficient process." 

"We know 33% of plant-based milk consumers in the U.S. move back to dairy because of compromises in taste," said Lucho Lopez-May, CEO of NotCo in North America, in a statement. 

Aside from milk and meat, AI has the potential to create better-tasting plant-based fermented foods like cheese and yogurt. If you’ve ever had vegan cheese, it definitely doesn’t live up to regular cheese in terms of taste and that quintessential stringy cheese pull. But Muchnick said NotCo is looking to expand its product line to use AI to mimic fermented foods like cheese. 

Overall, Muchnick said that no matter people’s reasons for choosing plant-based, there are so many other options to explore aside from animal-made products. He strongly believes AI can help us discover these alternative choices.

"There is no need for an animal to be there in order to get your milk or meat," Muchnick said.

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