Home » Science & Technology Ethics » Canned and Uncanny: A Look at Artificial Food

Canned and Uncanny: A Look at Artificial Food

While having my dinner, I had an idea: We consume so much processed food, and some of it is designed in a way that it suggests naturalness, maybe for marketing reasons. With the availability of more and more advanced food technology like 3D printing and labgrown meat products, I was wondering if the visual improvement of artificial food would increase the acceptance of it. A very similar discussion is held in the context of robot design: It is known that robot designs that poorly attempt to resemble human appearance are rejected while designs that are either obviously non-human or extremely good at resembling human features are trusted more. This is known as the uncanny valley. I was wondering if we would find a similar uncanny valley for artificial food.

The uncanny valley, first described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, is a characteristic dip in emotional response that happens when we encounter an entity that is almost, but not quite, human. Many of the robots in science fiction stories appear likeable to us because they don’t even try to copy human-likeness, for example Wall-E, R2-D2, or C3PO. That last one may be the most trustworthy one because it clearly resembles human features, but clearly is not human. This changes with robots that exhibit a higher human-likeness, for example Sonny (from I-Robot). We feel a kind of discomfort when confronted with Sonny’s human features. This gets worse when humanoid androids show resemblances to physical human states that are uncomfortable to us like missing limbs, injuries, deformations, holes, etc. We find the skeletal form of the Terminator highly frightening, because it reminds us of pain and misery. When robots are poor at mimicking human appearance and behaviour, or when they appear like malfunctioning or follow inhumane behavioural patterns, the uncanny valley reaches its bottom. The gunslinger in the Westworld movie is such a case. Current state-of-the-art of robotics like the weirdly zombie-like android versions of Japanese girl come to mind as well. Yet, when the attempt to maintain a high level of human-likeness are successful, we start feeling differently about the machines. The Synths in the BBC series Humans are still creepy when their behaviour is odd, but they appear genuinely humane for the most time. The Terminator in its human form is even able to gain our trust in the later movies. The most perfected form of robots are probably the hosts in the HBO series Westworld where there is nothing odd about the behaviour of conscious robots like Dolores or Maeve.


The main implication of this insight for robot design is that you are either extremely good at creating human-likeness, or you don’t even try it. For example, in the context of home appliances and robotic helpers, the devices should either be entirely non-humanoid like the automatic vacuum cleaner, or they must be as good as the Synths in Humans (a future vision, as of now). The market for poorly designed and creepily behaving humanoid androids is very small.

Experts on the psychology of technology and its usage suggest a variety of reasons for the uncanny valley phenomenon. It may occur at a boundary between categories (here: non-human/human, or inanimate/alive). It may have to do with the eeriness of the possibility that near-human entities possess a mind. Possibly, even likely, the discomfort arises from the mismatch between aspects of the robot’s appearance or behaviour, such as speech synchronisation, speech speed, facial expression, or inappropriate out-of-context utterances.

Can the insights of the well-studied field of robotics, its applications, and the technology’s acceptance be transferred to food technologies? The relevant factor in this context would be naturalness or, respectively, the ambition to make the food product appear like anything natural. We usually don’t hesitate to eat a piece of sugar candy, even though it doesn’t look like anything we find in nature. One step further might be canned meat that doesn’t try to appear like a steak, not even like minced meat. Yet, the poor meat-likeness makes it appear quite disgusting to many people. Chips (‘French Fries’ in American English) look like pieces that could have been cut out of a real potato, so we feel familiar with it. We forgive that they have nothing much in common with potatoes. Ketchup might be an interesting case because we imagine it as some form of blended tomato, but we know at the same time that given its consistency and rich flavour it cannot be only tomato. Here we enter the realm of foods that attempt to imitate natural ingredients. Some instant noodle products in East Asia include a small bag of dry tiny pieces that expand to 5 times their size in the hot water, obviously imitating meat slices or vegetable pieces that are in their non-instant counterparts (like Ramen or other Asian noodle soups). We clearly see and taste that this is an artificial fake product, so we consider this product unhealthy and trust-unworthy.


The application of 3D-printing for foods is at its infancy now, and current products appear rather eerie to me. Unicoloured pieces of carrots, peas, sausages, or even mashed potatoes look like plastic and not like anything edible. Here, we may arrive at the bottom of the uncanny food valley. On the other side, the almost completely artificial ‘crab meat’ surrogate that is used in Japanese and Korean cuisine, for example as Sushi ingredient, is acceptable to me, even though I know that crabs don’t have legs big enough to yield such big chunks. The question is: Would people accept totally artificial food (lab-grown meat, 3D-printed dishes or ingredients) as long as it looks natural enough and tastes good? As a proof that this is no longer science fiction, check this start-up from Vienna (Austria) that developed 3D-printed smoked salmon imitate from natural vegan substances. In a test, people could not distinguish, both visually and gustatory, between real smoked salmon and the imitate. We may say, it passed the food-related analogy of a Turing test.

Note that the degree of processing or artificialness says nothing about the actual healthiness of the product. Both natural and unnatural foods can have beneficial and adverse health effects. Even, in fully artificial foods all ingredients can be analysed, studied, and controlled, whereas natural products are complex mixtures of thousands of substances some of which are likely to be carcinogenic. This is an entirely different discussion.

Would the identification of an uncanny valley in the context of food technology have any implications like the one in the robotics context, for example for food designers? Let’s just assume for a moment that in a possible future it is impossible or not recommended to eat real meat, for whatever reason. Let’s also assume that the following suggested alternatives all have the same nutrition value and are all safe to consume. Would meat substitute be better off when presented and marketed as so artificial (let’s say, as a blue liquid) that it is clear that this is no real meat, or when manufactured (for example, 3D-printed or lab-grown with biotechnological means) as the best imitation, visually and gustatory? While the effect is known for the visual and, less, the auditory impressions of robots, would we have to consider other factors in artificial food that may exhibit an uncanny valley effect, for example texture or smell?

A brief search tells me that I am not the first to apply the uncanny valley phenomenon to food technology. Apparently, researchers approach this topic from various angles (psychology, STS, economics, engineering, design, social science, food chemistry, etc.). For a bit of further reading, I recommend this interesting article on Anthroposhpere.

One thought on “Canned and Uncanny: A Look at Artificial Food

  1. Pingback: A Tsunami of Stunning Visuals Is Headed Your Way - Raj Singh | LA

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