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Why fussy eating has become the norm

For your mouth only: welcome to the era of personalised food

Bee Wilson asks what is gained – or lost – when everyone has a Dorito tailored for them?

Bee Wilson asks what is gained – or lost – when everyone has a Dorito tailored for them?

Bee Wilson | February/March 2019

Ten years ago when my daughter was five, we had a Saturday-morning ritual. Every week we went to a nearby branch of Pret A Manger after her ballet class and bought a tub of grapes and a brownie. She drank milk, I drank coffee and we shared the brownie. “You cut and I choose,” I’d say, and I watched her screwing her face up in concentration, trying to measure exactly half. When our ritual started, the Pret brownie was square in shape and to our mind had the perfect balance of softness and hardness: slightly crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside, with the occasional hit of chocolate chips. Then they changed the formula. To our mild discomfort, the shape shifted from square to rectangular and the texture became much softer and moussier. The Pret website declared: “We don’t like over-baked brownies, we like them just right; dark and moist.” But to me and my daughter, these new brownies were not “just right” at all. It was still a nice enough brownie, in its way. But it was no longer our brownie. The shape, texture and taste were all now subtly off. We switched our custom to an independent café.

Like most food products on the market, the Pret brownie is formulated to please some fictitious average person with average taste-buds. Whereas many companies use external focus groups and sensory tasting panels, Pret tests its products in-house. Food developer Fran Crute tells me that every Monday, a Pret team visits a few branches to buy a selection of brownies and other cakes to test. They also do comparative tastings with competitors’ brownies. If the product developers feel that some aspect of the flavour or texture needs tweaking, they take it to the company’s food meeting on a Thursday and devise a fix. Over the years, the Pret brownie has been changed nearly 40 times, in an attempt to perfect the recipe. Too much flour and the brownie will be cakey. Too little and it will have so little structure it risks getting squashed in someone’s bag. Many individual adjustments have been almost imperceptible. Recently, 30 seconds was shaved from the bake time, to make the texture just a fraction fudgier.

Each tiny change is ultimately designed to sell more brownies. The Pret product developers found that some rival ones on the market are made from milk chocolate and some from dark, so, attempting to please all brownie eaters, they decided to split the difference and use a mixture, even though it drives up costs.

But here’s the snag: the brownie that truly pleases all brownie eaters can never be invented. It’s in the nature of a brownie to be somewhere between a cake and a piece of dense fudge in texture, but consumers have different ideas about where on that spectrum their utopian brownie lies. As the example of me and my daughter shows, when you change a brownie to please one set of eaters, you risk displeasing another set whose preferences differ. Pret has long resisted customisation. But last year, Pret took the radical step of launching an alternative second brownie – gluten free, with a swirl of raspberry jam and almond butter. Like many other food companies, Pret has realised that its food needs to appeal to the individual quirks of its customers.

You can’t please all people all of the time, but we are living in a food culture that has taken a dramatic shift towards the personal. We live in an era in which everything is personalised – from playlists to medicine – so it was only a matter of time before food also became tailored to individual desires. The generation who grew up with the instant gratification of Google have food tastes that are both broad and capricious. With access to new cuisines – not to mention food-delivery apps – consumers have become both specific and bold in their food requests, ordering up Korean food on a whim or eating Neapolitan pizza for breakfast. We have been encouraged to believe that everything from salad to a Subway sandwich – hold the pickles but extra cheese – should come in a personally customised version.

We used to disdain this as fussy eating. But a new breed of entrepreneurs has sensed a commercial opportunity and are using artificial intelligence to cater to one of the great mysteries of everyday life: the variability of human taste. No two people eat exactly alike. You may love salty foods, while I yearn for sour. So why should we be expected to enjoy the same yogurt or the same loaf of bread? Nadia Berenstein, a sociologist of science, wrote recently that the ultimate promise of personalised food is that one day, “we’ll each have a Dorito of our own”. Whether the food industry could ever personalise mass-produced products to this extent is doubtful. It’s more unlikely still that a synthetic tortilla chip, no matter how personalised, could ever please devotees of artisanal food. The striking thing is that “a Dorito of one’s own” has become such a widespread aspiration.

In the past, in less abundant circumstances than today’s, diners were expected to adapt themselves to food. Sharing was an essential aspect of dinner. Mother ladled stew from a pot and everyone at the table was obliged to eat it, like it or not. If you hated carrots or found that there was too much pepper in the broth, that was hard luck. Your only options were to push the disliked element in the meal to the side of the plate or to swallow it down and be thankful. Now, special products are being tailored to please each of us. In 2016 Campbell’s Soup – an American food giant that Andy Warhol turned into an icon of mass-production – invested in Habit, a personalised food service that combines DNA testing of a person’s saliva with a series of other evaluations to generate a customised nutrition plan: food “for the unique you” as the Habit website puts it.

Personalised food is not entirely new. In the 1980s, Howard Moskowitz, a sensory scientist, pioneered the idea that there is no such thing as the Platonic ideal of bottled pasta sauce – only a series of pasta sauces to please different people. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in an essay for the New Yorker in 2004, Moskowitz made millions for Campbell’s by persuading the company to develop a super-chunky sauce for that sub-section of Americans who love bits of tomato in their pasta. Yet in my experience, no one has yet created a bottled pasta sauce for food snobs like me who think that all bottled pasta sauces taste faintly depressing. I don’t care if it’s chunky or smooth. All I want is something that doesn’t have an aftertaste of dried blood and ketchup.

The ideal of personalised food represents a shift in manners as much as anything, at least in Britain, where it used to feel impolite to make too many demands when eating out. I have a dear American friend who – like Sally in the film “When Harry Met Sally” – likes things just the way she likes them. For years, she would march into a café and order half-caf, half-decaf coffee and I would cringe inwardly. When we ate pizza together, she’d ask the restaurant to remake the tomato sauce without a hint of oregano or chilli. The thing that I struggled with most was when we met at a café and she would produce her own baked goods out of her handbag, because she didn’t care for the café’s croissants. Yet in the past five years, I’ve noticed that my friend’s pernicketiness becoming almost normal. Her coffee order looks positively restrained compared with the elaborate oat-and-cashew-milk flat whites now on the menu. And bringing your own food and drink into cafés has also become a trend. I was taken aback a couple of weeks ago to see a young woman eating a “rainbow wellness bowl” in a café. She had brought in a huge Starbucks coffee to wash it down, apparently oblivious of the fact that the café sold coffee too.

I’ve spoken to university caterers who say that their job has become unmanageable over the past five years because of all the special requests. Previously they might have had to cook just a handful of special meals at a formal dinner for students, mostly because of serious food allergies or religious requirements such as kosher or halal. Now, the number of people making personal requests is as high as half of the total, and the demands have become far more finicky, such as wanting organic meat, no cinnamon or low-carb vegan.

Nick Popovici is one of the entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of these firm expressions of preferences. He founded Vita Mojo, a small London chain offering ultra-personalised healthy meals to busy workers in the City of London in 2016. Popovici argues that we will soon reach the point where special diets are the norm, and the food businesses will succeed by accommodating them. “If I’m against something, it’s averages!” announced Popovici excitably at lunch one bright autumn day. “Averages were useful during the Industrial Revolution but there is so much better information available now.” With his slicked-back hair, he looks like he still does his former job, as a fund manager for BlackRock. Vita Mojo is designed to appeal to the same kind of office worker who might buy themselves a desk-lunch of sandwich and a smoothie – the difference is that Popovici’s outlet lets you construct the lunch to suit yourself.

Popovici wants his customers to feel as though they are assembling their lunch with freedom. Using a touch screen, you pick exactly the combination of proteins, vegetables, side dishes and sauces you want, depending on your own likes and budget, as well as your personal macro needs – the three basic macronutrient groups of protein, fat and carbohydrate – if you are into that kind of thing. You can choose the oddest combinations your heart desires, assuming that the basic building blocks are on the menu, which includes such items as grass-fed beef ragout, Bengali beetroot cakes and avocado mash. What you can’t do is change the seasoning or composition of these basic building blocks, because they are pre-made each morning. There are eight main courses to choose from and 24 side dishes, some of which rotate seasonally (such as celeriac and mascarpone purée, a winter special). Some more popular items remain constant (such as sweet- potato mash). Should you love pungent foods such as chilli sauce or crispy shallots, you can add a whole heap of them. Or if you love blandness you could create a lunch for yourself of sticky rice, cubes of polenta and plain chicken breast. One of Popovici’s customers at Vita Mojo regularly orders a lunch of six soft-boiled eggs and an entire box of kale and almond salad.

Popovici steps up to one of the touch screens and chooses an extra-large portion of hake with kale salad and broccoli with salsa verde. He tells me this is his regular order. Personalisation can make us strangely set in our ways. Seeing Popovici choose his lunch almost on auto-pilot, I am reminded of the way that, out of all the rich and varied music choices available to me on my phone, I often find myself listening to the same three Stevie Wonder songs over and over again.

I then choose my own lunch on the screen. At first, I feel myself panicking slightly. Is being given so many choices really desirable? What if you prefer someone else to make decisions for you? In 2004 American psychologist Barry Schwartz published “The Paradox of Choice” in which he argued that too many choices can make consumers deeply anxious. In a famous experiment conducted in 2000, two psychologists set up a stall in a market. On one day they had 24 types of jam for sale; on another six types. Sales were much greater when the narrow selection was available.

The growing popularity of personalised food suggests that all of us still have an inner picky child. To my surprise, I found that when I started to play around with the options on the screen at Vita Mojo, I enjoyed the freedom. I chose Sri Lankan dal, crispy chicken thigh and roasted cauliflower with turmeric sauce, plus cucumber pickles. The final screen told me that my lunch cost around £7, had an even balance of carbs to proteins and contained 500 calories. Popovici swiped on the screen to increase the portion of the dal, because he thought the calorie count was too low. I also decided to boost the portion of the pickles because I love sourness. Around three minutes later, the food arrived at our table. There was subtle spicing in the dal and the chicken skin was properly crisp and nicely seasoned with thyme. But another pleasure of this personalised lunch was that it contained no iffy elements to offend me: no raw onion, no unwarranted mayonnaise. Because I assembled it myself, I ate and enjoyed every bite (Popovici notes that one benefit of personalised meals is reduced food waste).

When Vita Mojo first opened, Popovici and his colleagues didn’t know to what extent customers would embrace the personalised meal. The café also offers pre-assembled dishes and Popovici, who was inspired to set up the business after suffering from debilitating food intolerances, imagined that around 10% of customers might go for a fully personalised meal. He was staggered to find that, from the start, more than 90% of customers chose that option. He reckons that the desire for personalised meals was there all along, “It’s just that no one asked people whether they wanted it before.” He hopes to change the model of how restaurants operate. The main part of his business is selling to other restaurants the technology for creating personalised meals. So far, some 50 other restaurants have bought it, including Wokit, another small chain.

From babyhood onwards, nothing is so personal as what we put in our mouths. In a sense this kind of bespoke food has been a long time coming. We each carry around our own experience of flavour, which doesn’t fully translate to others. Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist who wrote “Why You Eat What You Eat: the Science Behind Our Relationship with Food”, says that our flavour responses are even more profoundly personal than other sensations. You and I both see red as red (assuming we aren’t colour blind) but when we eat raspberries we experience different things, because some people lack the olfactory receptor that enables them to perceive that cut-grass note of freshness that makes a raspberry so different from a strawberry. Many reactions to smell and flavour have a genetic component. Wild boars give off a hormone called androstenone which, depending on your genes, either smells sickening and urinous or rather lovely, like vanilla. As a fan of Mexican food, I’m grateful not to be in the minority of people for whom coriander (cilantro) tastes soapy and strange. Because of their genetic makeup, some people can’t smell the main component in synthetic peach flavouring, so food-chemists add a second peach-smelling chemical to create a peach flavour that works for all.

Our food yearnings are the product of our culture and upbringing too. The flavours we gravitate towards recapitulate the memories of ones we have been exposed to. At the family dinner table, we learn flavours that taste of home, ones that make us feel safe and warm – as well as foods that we despise. By buying my daughter a brownie every week, I taught her that chocolate was an extension of my love for her (now I wonder if we should have shared a bowl of soup instead). Our “personal” tastes are thus not quite as personal as we think. Over time, we can learn to enjoy flavours that we once found repugnant, if they have positive connotations. Do you remember the first time you tried a craft IPA? I’ll bet it tasted horrible: so strong, so funky and bitter compared with a mass-market lager. But the label on the can or bottle was cool and all the hipsters in the bar were drinking it. Over time, through exposure, maybe you started to enjoy that bitterness.

Jason Cohen is interested in how certain demographics adopt once abhorred flavours. He is the founder of Analytical Flavor Systems (AFS), an American firm that has created a tool called “the Gastrograph AI”, which offers the food industry data on how to formulate products to please specific demographics. Unlike sensory panels, which tell you what people enjoy eating right now, the Gastrograph can apparently predict how consumer preferences may change, because it analyses the way that clusters of preferences correlate with each other. Kombucha is a fermented fizzy tea drink that has recently become popular among health-conscious consumers, seemingly out of nowhere. Yet Cohen reckons that the popularity of kombucha could have been anticipated: according to his Gastrograph, there was already a demographic who loved the bitterness of tea and the sourness of vinegar.

Starting 20 years ago, Cohen tells me, American palates took a turn towards bitterness and, later, sourness. In the late 1990s, sensory scientists observed the emergence of a stable bitter preference. No one knows why. You could argue that this move was caused by the rising popularity of espresso, dark chocolate and IPA. But perhaps these were mere symptoms of our changing tastes, as some consumers consciously moved away from high-sugar diets and inevitably selected more bitter foods. As Cohen explains, our chocolate preferences tend to change in stages: “Someone will go from sweet chocolate to semi-sweet to dark to 70% to unsweetened 85% cocoa, getting darker and darker.” Successful food products can be both cause and effect of changing choices. The latest development in the American palate is a penchant for sour. “We moved from fruit-flavoured parfaits to Greek yogurt, and now from Greek yogurt to Icelandic skyr,” says Cohen.

Traditionally, food companies designed products to please a broad demographic, using focus groups. Now we live in an age of micro-desires, where social media encourages us to express our differences in a hundred tiny ways. That the food industry still caters to a single common denominator ought to surprise us. Cohen points out that many big brands are currently losing out to “smaller, more nimble” ones. Sales of drinks such as Budweiser, Pepsi and Diet Coke are declining. Such trends partly reflect shifting patterns of consumerism and a millennial love of niche brands as much as flavour preference. But Cohen reckons that unless companies do a better job of personalising items, they may become irrelevant.

The Gastrograph is a data-collection tool. Thousands of individuals respond to food products in various markets around the world, and then rate their response to a given product on a dial: categories include “mouth feel”, “herbaceous”, “cold finish”, “woody” and many more. Unlike a traditional tasting panel, the Gastrograph organises data in a hierarchical way, which can help uncover patterns. A person’s taste for Meyer lemon (a hybrid of a citron and pomelo) might lead in turn to a preference for grapefruit, if presented appealingly enough. Cohen has high ambitions for the Gastrograph’s analytical potential. He reckons it can currently calculate flavour preferences based on six different categories: age, race, sex, past eating experience, socioeconomic status and smoking habits. He hopes that as more data is accumulated, it will be able to cater for more precise subdivisions of human desire. Yet when I ask him what specific flavours he craves that mainstream food products don’t fulfil, he is momentarily flustered, and can’t answer “off the cuff”. He adds that the Gastrograph would probably answer this question better than he could.

One of the strange things about personalised food, in Cohen’s view, is that we are surprisingly bad at creating it for ourselves. It’s one thing to shuffle pre-made building blocks – as at Vita Mojo – and it’s another to mix ingredients from scratch. We often don’t know our own preferences as well as we think we do. The Coca-Cola Freestyle is a special machine that allows consumers to mix their own soda. The machine is full of tiny cartridges that you can dispense in small doses to make the soft drink of your dreams. “I love watching people use it because it’s an awful experience,” says Cohen. “People are all excited they are going to craft their own soda.” Knowing that they love vanilla, someone might add extra vanilla, only to taste it and retch. “What they didn’t realise was that not only are they not a professional product developer but also what they liked was a hint of vanilla. The only way to surprise and delight someone is not to ask them but just to present them with something that they will prefer to anything they have tasted before.”

Back at Vita Mojo in London, Nick Popovici has a different vision of personalised food. To him, the surprise and delight comes from giving customers carte blanche over what goes in their mouths. “I want to be the Spotify of food,” Popovici says more than once. No one has to listen to the songs they don’t like on an album any more, so why should we be forced to endure having ingredients that displease us on our plates? One Vita Mojo regular is a tennis coach who comes in five times a day to eat a succession of small high-protein meals between sessions on court. Popovici reckons that for too long, people with unusual food preferences have been treated as “outcasts”. Yet in reality, it is the people with truly “average” tastes who are rare. Like Spotify with its daily playlists, Popovici wants to become better at tailoring the choices on the touch screen to the individual. Vita Mojo has joined up with a DNA testing company called DNAFit. If you pay to do a saliva test to establish certain individual responses – such as genetic intolerances and your reactions to carbohydrate and fat – the touch screens at Vita Mojo will suggest a meal that supposedly suits your body’s precise needs. Running Vita Mojo has taught Popovici that human food cravings are mysterious. When it rains, orders of broccoli dramatically increase, for reasons that have yet to be explained. “Soup – that makes sense. But broccoli?”

We live in an age in which, thanks to social media, many of us live in our own bubble. As voters or citizens, it is easy to avoid having our views questioned. We can construct a Facebook feed in which we are never exposed to views that displease us. Not everyone sees that as positive. But Popovici’s dream is that one day, all restaurants and cafés will be like that too. Whether we are eating out or at home, we will always eat exactly what we want.

Yet I wonder if this is really such a utopia. The talent of a good chef is to make us think again about flavours we thought we didn’t like: to challenge and change our preferences rather than just to pander to them. It isn’t clear, either, that demanding to eat precisely what we want really answers our needs, especially if it comes at the cost of the social element of meals. Popovici told me that he recently got in a big argument with René Redzepi, a Danish chef, who felt that personalised nutrition contradicted food’s true purpose, which, as Redzepi sees it, is to bring people together in a kind of communion.

We are fed by more than food when we sit down and break bread. When we eat the same food at the same time, we are brought a little closer together. A human alchemy occurs. Maybe you wish the sauce contained a fraction more garlic and I would like it more with an extra pinch of chilli, but to pay too much attention to these tiny selfish differences would be to miss the bigger transformation, which is the unifying of flavours, of conversation and of company.

I was thinking again about those Pret brownies I shared with my daughter all those years ago. Yes, we liked the fudgy texture and those little bursts of chocolate chips. But what I really liked was simply the ritual of eating them together. When they changed the formula, it wasn’t just that we didn’t enjoy the recipe as much. It was as if they had taken away all those other brownies we had shared.