When arriving in lower Manhattan for a one-day summit called “The Future of Food” on September 18th, we eagerly anticipated hearing a diverse group of experts and stakeholders discuss and debate how tomorrow’s food and nutrition landscape will take shape. As Eat Well Global further establishes its unique position empowering global change agents in our field, we actively seek more perspectives and opinions on the myriad questions and issues on the minds of health professionals, consumers and our clients when it comes to food systems, sustainability, and nutrition.

This convening, a collaboration between Eating Well magazine and the International Food Information Council Foundation, served as a forum for thought leaders representing a variety of organizations to vocalize their perspectives on topics including the ever-changing consumer experience, sustainable food production, Americans’ fixation on protein and emergent innovations in nutrition and health.

The day kicked off from 30,000 feet with Ali Bouzari, the culinary scientist and co-founder of Pilot R&D, sharing his perspective on the world through the lens of what he called the eight ingredients: water, sugar, carbs, lipids, protein, minerals, gases and heat. These building blocks provide context for not only what we see on the supermarket and Amazon shelves today, but they are also the building blocks for the future of food.

The most anticipated panel of the day was titled Plants to Animals: Where is Our Protein Obsession Headed? The experience and affiliations of the panelists varied widely: from Jennie Schmidt, a registered dietitian and farmer, to Ephi Eyal and Katharine Richards, executives at brands poised to capitalize on consumer demand for plant-based food choices. We also heard from Sara Place, PhD, Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Renske Lynde from Food System 6, an accelerator that supports entrepreneurs tackling food system challenges.

A few highlights:

  • All of the panelists seemed to agree that there is a lot of noise in the current marketplace on protein. Consumers exploring their protein options would be best served by questioning where data and information on this topic is coming from. The most trusted sources should be credible experts and organizations rooted in sound science.
  • Place thoughtfully argued that “plant agriculture depends on animal agriculture” and even went so far as to call beef a plant-based food given that cattle are consuming grass and grains. She encouraged the audience to consider the notion that animal foods are about more than just protein; animal agriculture also supplies other essential nutrients, provides livestock producers a livelihood and allows the manufacture of other products beyond food.
  • On the topic of the recent EAT-Lancet Commission report, Eyal shared some of the top-line implications of the authors’ recommendations on plant and animal-based foods, but Schmidt and Dr. Place reiterated that we must consider the “realities of agricultural production” as well as dietary needs of people around the world, most of whom are omnivores and many of whom are in developing countries in dire need of accessible and plentiful nutrient-dense food.
  • The panelists all acknowledged that while we are all embroiled in this heated discussion around protein and plant-based options, we are among a small fraction of the global population with the economic means and food security to be scrutinizing our food choices and seeking out options that align with our values. Meanwhile, for individuals living in poorer countries, their immediate nutritional and economic needs are the primary drivers of their consumption patterns.

Along with this enlightening panel, some other panels during the day included insights on the consumer experience from diverse perspectives such as food service, in the kitchen and on grocery store shelves; a fascinating look behind-the-scenes at how our food is grown and changes being made throughout the entire food system from chicken production to cocoa farming; and the final conclusion on innovations related to nutrition and health, including personalized nutrition technology, the role of the registered dietitian at retail and how experts can continue to make a difference in the lives of consumers.

Summing up the day, we observed the future of food is very much like the present:  complicated, nuanced and interdependent.