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  • Ali Tadlaoui

"It's the variety of tastes that makes a market."

That’s the rough translation of an expression my dad taught me that sums up customer segmentation (it rhymes in the original Moroccan Arabic). One of the mantras of marketing is “segment then innovate.” The assumption is that not all customers are looking for the same thing.

Food brands continue to proliferate in numbers and in items any given brand tries to get on a supermarket shelf because segmentation continues to drive the market. Our needs, wants, and desires are segmented by income, gender, age, palate/scent preferences, ethnicity, lifestyle attitudes and habits, day parts, and life stage, among other things. Some of this segmentation is, let’s admit it, trivial. We end up, say, with five different versions of an Italian salad dressing from the same brand, when two probably suffice. I just came across an experimental food the other day – it’s not a product you can buy yet - that is based on a specific need that is not trivial.

As we age into the late stages of life it can become increasingly difficult to chew and swallow foods and liquids because of dental problems or medical conditions like dysphagia. Limiting the range of foods can make eating less pleasurable. Soft or softened foods can be lifeless and less satiating too. One of the consequences is that people who have difficulty chewing or swallowing take less interest in eating, eat less, and maybe not enough of a variety of foods. Malnutrition is a growing issue among senior citizens. A recent article on BBC Future, “The chicken drumsticks are made from cauliflower,” cites research which found that one in five adults and people aged 64 or above don’t get enough vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, selenium and iodine.

The BBC story highlights efforts to make food more interesting for people who can’t easily chew or swallow. At nursing homes in Germany, Sweden, and Singapore (likely other places as well), residents are being offered a different kind of softened meal; food that’s been produced by a 3-D printer, frozen, and then reheated. Imagine the shape, surface texture, and caramelized color of a chicken drumstick next to a scalloped mound of mashed potatoes and bright green broccoli fleuret lookalikes. It looks like you need to use knife and fork, not a spoon. The aroma rising off the plate is consistent with what you see. Only the chicken is not animal, it’s vegetable, fortified with extra vitamins and minerals.

So far, so good. About half those interviewed in the German nursing home said they liked the texture of these 3-D printed meals. Those who look after the nursing home residents are encouraged too because these meals are nutritionally complete. The German experiment was considered a success because the average weight of participants went up by almost 2 kilos. If the economics of it work out we’re likely to see this idea roll out to the many parts of the world where the population is greying fast. The UN expects that ¼ of North Americans will be over 65 by 2050.

I have a feeling the potential of this narrow application of 3-D food printing to address the needs of a quite specific customer segment is going to point the way for other food marketing opportunities. Food facsimiles have been around for a long time. Margarine comes to mind. What about faux lobster and crab? More recently, the Impossible burger has caught our attention and is gaining a following because of the ability of a plant-based food to mimic a beef burger.

I could envision the “food as fuel” segment of the population one day choosing a 3-D printed meal over a nutritionally-complete shake. Or those of who will buy into the promise of food that’s been tailored to our genetic signature. The DIY customer could get into this too. What if you had your own 3-D printer in the kitchen? You find a recipe, gather the requisite vegetable paste, protein powders, and gel in your pantry or fridge, then feed them into printer in the proper proportions. Et voila!

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