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The synthetic revolution

Across many sectors ‘synthetic’ has traditionally been a mistrusted word, hidden in the small print and relegated to the least visible area of packaging. The reason for this is that artificial ingredients and processes often raise concerns around quality and health depending on the sector. On the other hand natural ingredients and processes are viewed as trustworthy, simple, and better for you…or are they?

Despite their historical reputation of being ‘cheap’, synthetically made products are shaking off their inferior image and are beginning to encroach on the worthiness of ‘natural’.

The food and drink industry is at the forefront of this revolution with synthetic alternatives cropping up in a variety of categories. Most notable is the vegetarian arena where new technologies from Silicon Valley are breathing fresh life into meat-substitutes by making products so close to the real thing that they are convincing even the most diehard meat fans. Leading the way in the US, the Beyond Meat brand argues that not only are their plant-based burgers healthier than beef, but they are also better for the environment, cruelty free and taste just as good – a win win for consumers! Similarly wine is receiving the artificial treatment as companies are beginning to create their own unique wines by deconstructing and fermenting classic wine flavours. Although this isn’t solving any moral dilemmas, this does enable producers to exert more control over the quality and price of their products.

This synthetic movement is even infiltrating the most premium of markets. Just last week, international diamond brand, De Beer announced that it is launching a new range selling lab-grown diamonds. So similar to natural diamonds that a machine is needed to tell the difference, these man-made stones are making premium jewellery more affordable for audiences without a large disposable income, as well as offering a more ethical alternative for consumers who like a bit of sparkle but feel conflicted by the ugly truths of the diamond industry.

Although spanning across many different industries, nearly all of these new synthetic processes and products share a similar challenge: overcoming the friction caused by a lag between social acceptance and technical innovation. This is because despite solving issues around quality and ethics, the majority of us would still have reservations around man-made ingredients, preferring to stick to what we know and trust – natural. However, as pressure on natural resources grows and technical capabilities improve, these perceptions may shift and those cultural barriers could start to be broken down…

So turn your nose up at ‘cheap’ diamonds’ and test-tube wines, just remember that if history is anything to go by technology and innovation always wins in the end. The synthetic revolution is now.

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