Don’t like the taste of kale? Maybe you will soon.
Kale’s distinctive flavor has been compared to a “dusty bitter blanket,” but now there’s hope for those haters from an unlikely ally: artificial intelligence. Farmers are using technology to tweak the color and flavor of vegetables, including algorithms that can suggest changes in factors like the amount of water vegetables receive and what temperature they’re grown in.
One such company, Bowery, which bills itself as “the modern farming company” and was founded in 2015, has an indoor farm based in New Jersey where scientists are adjusting the taste of vegetables including kale.
“Our system is able to say, ‘Do we like what we’re seeing, do we not like it?’” said Irving Fain, Bowery’s co-founder and CEO. The company’s algorithms analyze everything from the nutrients in the plants’ water to the type of light they are grown under. Bowery said he’s able to grow vegetables without “blemishes,” even though they use no chemicals in their growing process.
Even though kale appears to be far more popular on menus than iceberg lettuce, Americans are eating a lot more of the latter. The U.S. either produce or import approximately 13.5 pounds of iceberg per capita for use, a drop from 20.9 pounds per person in 2005, according to the latest data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Kale, meanwhile, has remained relatively steady for the last decade, with the U.S. producing and importing just 0.6 pounds of kale per person, up from 0.4 pounds per person in 2005.
And yet mentions of kale are “off the charts,” said Caleb Bryant, a food-industry analyst at Mintel. “Kale is just exploding in all restaurants, whether it be salad or roasted kale,” he said. And on store shelves, there is a similar rise in kale products, from kale chips to kale smoothies and juices, he said.
AI could help cut down on kale waste
Besides potentially improving taste, AI could have another benefit: cutting down on waste. About 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold every year, according to an estimate by Feeding America, a nonprofit based in Chicago. Some of those losses happen because of pests, disease, weather or labor shortage, but another portion gets thrown away because it has physical imperfections, which grocery-store shoppers find to be a turnoff. The produce that is misshapen or blemished goes unsold.
As far as improving the taste of kale, Fain might have a tough battle to fight. Although it is trendy, and restaurants have increased their menu items that contain the leafy green, Americans still much prefer lettuces like iceberg. The U.S. either produces or imports approximately 13.5 pounds of iceberg per capita, compared to just 0.6 pounds of kale, according to the latest government data available.
Nutritional content also varies, depending on the lettuce. In one cup of chopped raw kale, there are about 2.2 grams of protein (4% of daily value), 1.3 grams of fiber (5% daily value) and vitamins including Vitamin A (206% daily value) and Vitamin C (134%.) A similar serving size of spinach has about 2% of daily value for protein, 3% of daily value for fiber, 56% of Vitamin A and 14% of Vitamin C. Romaine and iceberg, while they are low in calories, contain very little protein or calcium.
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