A new functional eating system based on our digestive system
Year of project: 2015
In collaboration with: TNO and Museum Boerhaave
NARROW-MINDED VIEW ON FOOD WASTE
You may be surprised to hear that the world produces 17% more food than it did 30 years ago, yet nearly half of that produce never reaches our bellies. Sure, we are trying to reduce, reuse and recycle food waste, but what about over-consumption? Or, on an even smaller scale, the inefficient digestion and nutrient absorption of food by our bodies? Our understanding of “food waste” might be rather narrow-minded.
I was surprised to learn that most people absorb only 75% of the nutrients
they consume. That’s a direct waste of 25% of everything we eat?! For us it’s quite “natural” to eat high amounts of processed foods; it’s part of our modern diets. Yet our bodies are not designed to process such high quantities of heavy, nutrient-dense foods, and as a result we have difficulty digesting it all at once.
Digestion processes of one nutrient group can interfere with and disturb the digestion processes of other nutrient groups. This can lead to unprocessed food in our bellies, causing unbalanced intestinal flora and resulting in inefficient nutrient absorption. This also explains why many people suffer from digestive problems, heartburn and constipation—undigested food is not only a waste of resources; it also damages our health.
A NEW EATING SYSTEM
We digest nutrients in a specific order, at specific sites, with specific digestive enzymes. In our mouths, the digestion of carbohydrates begins. Then the body processes proteins and lipids, and finally, micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals).
This led me to wonder why our food isn’t designed with this system in mind. If we produced food in the order of digestion, our bodies could in theory harvest the full potential of the nutrients’ energy, without losing nutritional value in the process of digestion. Perhaps food as it is now just isn’t the right fuel for our engines?
Looking at how the digestive system works allows us to speculate on how digital fabrication methods—like food printing or encapsulation—could be applied to produce highly efficient “food capsules.” Separating the function of eating from the sensory experience. Digestive Food explores the use of encapsulation techniques to balance our intestinal flora, aiming to make food absorption and digestion more efficient.
In these capsules, the nutrients would be layered in order of digestion; similar to functional medicine, nutrient layers are separated by membranes that can only dissolve once the right digestive juices are present to digest the next nutrient layer. This means that in theory, our body would have more time to digest and absorb the food it consumes.
The basic capsule will measure about 5 millimeters in diameter and be built from carbohydrates, protein, lipids and micro-nutrients—in order of digestion. The capsules are small enough that only the carbohydrate layer can be chewed.
PERSONALIZE YOUR DIET
Generally speaking, our current diet consists of approximately
45-60% carbs, 15-20% protein and 20-35% lipids—although not everyone has the same nutritional needs or goals. This technology would allow us to personalize the composition of our diets by simply changing the proportions of the nutrient layers. For example, an athlete in need of a lot of energy could increase the amount of carbohydrates in his diet. If you’re looking to gain muscle instead, you can simply reduce the percentage of lipids in your diet and increase the percentage of proteins. In addition, the amount of micro-nutrients—and perhaps even additional medicine—could be manually adjusted before printing your personalized digestive food. Digestive Food could be specifically interesting for certain target groups including astronauts, elderly people and the severely ill.
But however sustainable, functional or healthy the Digestive Food is, if we want people to embrace this new eating system, the food needs to have a certain look, feel, and not least, flavor. How to turn a highly functional eating system consisting mainly of tiny capsules into something delicious?
ADDING SENSORY EXPERIENCE
Flavor is the sum of taste, smell and texture. Researchers have found that nearly 80% of a food’s flavor is determined by its retronasal odor (smelling through your mouth). The smell of food helps us to identify complex flavors and associate them with strongly rooted memories of food. Without smell, we would only be able to identify the five basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami. In addition to this, the texture, shape, color and sound of food all strongly influence our perception of the flavor.
So, if the look and basic taste of the capsules is not appetizing enough, why not enrich the eating experience by “seasoning” the food with customized smells, textures, colors and crunch, with the help of digital fabrication technologies?
It would be very inefficient to extract the nutrients from our current food.
So where would the nutrients come from?
In 2018 I was invited for a creative residence at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I could continue the Digestive Food project to work on this question!