The 21st century has brought a whole new meaning to personalisation. Whether it’s flicking through the news, shopping online or searching for the next TV binge, targeted content dominates our devices at every click and swipe. In 2019, personalisation is no longer a unique or quirky benefit; it’s an expectation. So, how do we bring this into the physical world of food consumption?
Research, development and innovation partner VTT has been involved in various studies in this space. Most recently, it funded its own project to create a mini cupcake factory prototype to enable on-site production of personalised, healthy snacks. It wanted to demonstrate that the potential for instant food production with tailored recipes is ready to be realised.
But these are not traditional cupcakes with frosting or icing – they are, quite literally, cups of cake served in a small container.
The VTT research was carried out in collaboration with consumers in two stages – one taking place before the prototype was even conceived.
“We firstly asked their opinions on delivering personalised products, and the cupcakes proved to be the most popular concept,” VTT research professor Nesli Sözer tells Food Spark. “They liked the idea of personalising something sweet and savoury that was also healthier than their average indulgent snack.”
The mini factory makes the cupcakes from scratch in a matter of minutes – responsible for everything from the mixing to the baking – with consumers able to personalise the flavours with familiar tastes such as chocolate, vanilla and berries, as well as boosting nutritional content with additional protein or fibre. Compared to a muffin (without any frosting or topping), the VTT cake had at least 20% less fat and 50% less sugar.
The second test involved the prototype itself, with triallists using the cupcake factory multiple times to ensure they were able to get to grips with the user interface. “On any machine, the first time can be challenging, no matter how straightforward the technology is,” explains Sözer. “The second time, it becomes a lot more automated.”
A ‘prosumer’ approach
Personalisation could be one of the keys to encouraging healthier choices. Rather than attempting to discourage consumers from snacking, Sözer believes making grazing healthier is a much more manageable – and preferable – task.
“We all know nutrition is important, and we have to eat healthily and so on, but this is real life!” she laughs. “We want pleasure from food. We don’t need to end our love affair with indulgence, we just need to reshape our eating and fitness plans to allow for those enjoyable habits.”
Creating more guilt-free versions of those habits would certainly be a big step in the right direction, but where does personalisation come in?
“Nowadays, if you look at the way food is consumed, in a way, it is no longer for nutrition purposes, even if it is the main driving force,” comments Sözer. “Food is something that we enjoy. It gives us pleasure and it has its own experience.”
Just as with a streaming service or online shopping experience, consumers like to feel more in control of the process and become much more engaged with the product when allowed that power.
“It becomes more of a ‘prosumer’ approach,” says Sözer. “And in the context of the cupcakes, they came modified based on their own nutritional needs. There was a base recipe in place that was compatible with all additional combinations such as extra fibre, extra protein, etc., as well as flexibility when it came to integrating different types of flavour components.
“Naturally, the possibilities cannot quite be endless, but if you think of today’s vending machine, I think that is the extent of the number of options you could expect.”
Vending machine 2.0?
Following the vending machine blueprint could mean these personalised machines could automatically mimic natural habitats such as train stations, retailers and university campuses, but Sözer’s vision goes bigger. She thinks it could be more commonplace.
“While the business model could be very similar to a traditional vending machine, another great example is the coffee machine,” she reveals. “In supermarkets, but especially in the office workplace. Some office machines go far back enough in the process for you to be able to see the beans before they are ground, so why not do this for personalised snacks?”
She also believes that the fast-evolving nature of both our eating habits and our environmental awareness will mean this sort of technology could be seen sooner rather than later. Additionally, our craving for personalised feasts will only be intensified by our growing desire for less packaging and waste reduction.
“We are snacking more and more,” Sözer points out. “We are reducing the number of full meals and snacking four, five, six times per day. There will undoubtedly be a shift towards more of this type of distributed production, such as these types of personalised food machines – this cannot happen with traditional food processors.”
The limitation game
But there are some hurdles for this innovation when it comes to popular trends like free-from. Gluten-free options, for example, would prove too challenging for the cupcake concept due to the difficulties ensuring there is no contamination.
“It would be possible to build a completely separate, gluten-free production line, but it would be very complicated,” comments Sözer. “(In the future), the use of various flours would be a significant part of the personalisation, too, so this would limit the options somewhat.”
However, this doesn’t mean the tech couldn’t be used for other foods.
“The research itself was carried out specifically for these cupcakes, so it's difficult to be too expansive, but you could look at things like ice cream,” says Sözer, “ This, however, would be a more simple flavour selection, and I think what makes the cupcakes really interesting is that the machine makes everything from scratch – the mixing, the baking, everything – in such a short space of time.”