OPINION15 September 2014

The future of food: what if everyone stops feeling hungry?


Much of consumer research is concerned with understanding and measuring desire. So what would happen if someone developed technology that suppressed desire. Seems a little far-fetched but there are research groups working on just such technology. At first sight, this is merely another dieting aid: however the implications go far beyond helping people trim their waistlines.

Only in agrarian societies are consumers fully aware of their food’s journey from the field to plate. Industrialisation stretched food chains, urbanisation left the consumer remote from the producer and the food itself became just another manufactured product. Globalisation added complexity to the chain with components sourced in different parts of the world and now, like a car or an iPod, food is transported from one country to another as it is ‘assembled.’

To add to the confusion food, which meets one of the consumer’s primary needs is marketed as a product to satisfy a range of tertiary needs. In a society where everyone has enough food to survive packaging, aesthetics, and even the rituals involved in its preparation, are regarded as important as its nutritional value.  

The complexity and opaqueness of food chains leave scope for things to go wrong as we have seen with BSE and the horsemeat scandal.  Consumers temporarily turn away from some foods but are tempted back by reassurances that the management of the food chain has improved.

The branding of certain food products as organic was an effort to make food chains more transparent. At A&N Research we have been tracking several companies that develop technology to trace the source of components within a particular food. But while some of the fog has lifted, complexity leaves the consumer confused. Barry Humphries’ alter ego, Dame Edna Everage claimed her diet was healthy because she only bought food if it had a picture of a cottage on it – amusing, but there is an element of truth in this perception of healthy food.

Links to obesity

Not easy to assuage is concern over the amount of food consumed and the links between this excess and the increase in instances of obesity. Sustainability of modern agriculture has become an issue. Is there enough land and water to produce the food the developed world consumes – especially as meat consumption in China is increasing. The solution to these two problems is for consumers to eat less. Currently for most of us how much we eat is still a lifestyle choice.

Two groups of scientists have been working on technology that suppresses a person’s appetite. As this work is being carried out in Cambridge and Aberdeen which, with their biotech and agricultural science parks, have a good track record in translating pure research into usable technology, indicates products could be on the horizon.

More interesting is that researchers have been working with the food company Danone looking over its shoulder. As the work is split between Aberdeen and Cambridge there is a chance ownership of the technology, if Scotland chooses independence, may end up in two different countries. This may give potential investors pause for thought but is unlikely to bring research to a complete halt.

The end of snacking?

We have to imagine a world where consumers sit down to breakfast and have no desire to eat again until lunch time. The impact on the food industry will be marked: something of a paradigm shift. From fast food outlets selling snacks at railway stations to supermarkets with aisles full of people with no appetite.

Where and how food is marketed will change and, as a consequence, so will the questions market researchers put to consumers. Perhaps time to consider just how much of your business is food industry related.   

Susan Krueger is an analyst at A&N Research.

1 Comment

10 years ago

I like this. Effects of appetite depressants could be enormous, as you say. There's now an anti-alcohol pill in development. More useful would be an anti people-I-dislike pill so that I could have gone to work each day, some few years back, and not cringed when being in certain (bosses') company.

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