Is This Food in Your Future?
Synthetic meat, nano nutrients, and insects may be tomorrow’s healthy dishes
When the Jetsons—that cartoon space-age family—were hungry, they turned to their handy food machine to pump out beef stroganoff, pizza, and chocolate. While some people may still dream of a day when push-button menus are commonplace, many are returning to the kitchen to cook themselves healthier meals. As people recognize that processed food with many additives for flavor, color, and shelf life may play a role in obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, eating for health is becoming the wave of the future.
Another big influence on tomorrow’s food will be environmental concerns. Growing populations with an increasing taste for meat threaten environmental resources—many experts believe the world can’t supply meat for 9 billion people, the expected global population in 2050. Feeding that number, even without meat, is going to be a challenge. But scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers are working toward a common goal: a sustainable future where healthful food is plentiful and delicious. Here are some of their ideas.
A team of scientists created quite a stir last August when they fed their lab-grown hamburger to a group of volunteers in London. The rationale came from the realization that the world will have a problem with raising enough livestock to keep up with meat demands, says Mark Post, MD, PhD, of the Eindhoven (Netherlands) University of Technology, who led the burger-making efforts. “There is also an environmental burden from livestock,” he says. For example, animals raised for food emit greenhouse gases, and their waste can contaminate waterways. Synthetic meat could someday provide a limitless source of environmentally friendly and tasty protein.
To make the synthetic burger, the scientists removed stem cells from cow muscles and allowed them to multiply in the laboratory. They grew each muscle fiber—a strand of muscle cells an inch long and a millimeter wide—individually over a couple of months. The last step in making the world’s first test-tube burger was to mix the fibers, containing some 60 billion muscle cells, with bread crumbs, seasonings, and some beet juice for color (the lab-grown meat ends up an unappetizing yellow, Post says, though tweaking growth conditions may encourage a rosier hue). In all, the burger took two years to produce and cost $325,000, though Post says that increasing the scale of production would bring the price down dramatically.
Eaters commented that while it resembled a burger, the test-tube meat wasn’t juicy. That was expected because the burger lacked fat cells, which in regular meat are interwoven into the tissue. For people eating for health, though, fat-free meat may be a bonus. “It’s lean, though that’s not our intention,” says Post. “We want to make products that are indistinguishable from the original.” In the future, Post intends to mix the muscle fibers with lab-grown fat tissue to make a juicier burger. But succulent burgers of the future may still be healthy burgers. “The health of the product may not come from a leaner product,” says Post, but from scientists’ control over its type of fat tissue. They could, in theory, make a burger with more good fats “to lower your cholesterol instead of raising it…. You can create the same taste and mouthfeel without adding bad fat.”
One solution to the health, environmental, and sustainability problems associated with meat consumption is to replace animal products with plant-based proteins that mimic the flavor and nutritional content of meat. “If you want to make a meat replacer from plant sources, take proteins from plants that the cow would eat and make meat from them directly,” says Frans Kampers, PhD, coordinator of innovative technologies at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. “If you can do that, you can make a more sustainable product.”
Hampton Creek Foods, a company in San Francisco, makes Beyond Eggs, a plant-based product that is chemically similar to eggs. The product can successfully replace eggs in cookie recipes and in mayonnaise, but the “golden egg” would be a product that could look, smell, and taste like scrambled eggs or an omelet. Hampton Creek may offer such a product soon. The key to creating egg-like properties was identifying a particularly eggy plant protein from the yellow pea; it beat out 217 other plant proteins. In addition to the benefit of freeing chickens from egg production, the plant-based substitute has no cholesterol and so may offer a heart-healthy option.
While Hampton Creek and others are looking to replace one food at a time, Rosa Labs in Los Angeles soon may offer more complete food replacement: a thick beverage called Soylent that claims to provide total nutrition. According to the product’s website, “Soylent will be personalized for different body types and customizable based on individual goals. It allows one to enjoy the health benefits of a well-balanced diet with less effort and cost.” It’s not yet clear whether a diabetes-friendly version of Soylent is part of the plan.
Believe it or not, bugs are a good source of healthful protein. Bugs require only a little food to make a lot of protein, and they flourish in tightly packed spaces. Insect farms would be one way to provide protein to people across the globe, but first, Western cultures are going to have to learn to like eating bugs. Ento is a London-based company that is aiming to change the way Westerners think about insects, turning creepy crawlers into tasty treats. According to Ento, bugs pack a nutritional punch, offering a food that contains essential nutrients and is low in fat and cholesterol. One of Ento’s strategies for reducing the ick factor is hiding insects in the food—for example, turning insects into a ground meat or shaping them into a cube that’s then fried—so you don’t have to stare down bug eyes during your dinner.
To put it mildly, genetically modified (GM) foods are controversial. Experts continue to energetically debate whether GM foods will harm or help the environment and human health in the long run. In today’s supermarkets, there are many products made from GM crops engineered for pesticide resistance, attractive appearance, or quick growth. However, we may be entering a new age of GM foods that offer healthier or more affordable versions of their conventional cousins. For example, golden rice has an added gene that allows the plant to make vitamin A and may help prevent vitamin deficiency in developing nations.
The first GM animal may soon make its way onto grocery store shelves. The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to approve AquAdvantage Salmon. This GM animal is Atlantic salmon that’s been engineered to contain a gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon and another from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout. Together, the genes help the salmon grow to market size twice as fast as conventional salmon do. Advocates say this will help make salmon affordable and sustainable, bringing a heart-healthy food to many more people. Critics argue that the GM salmon could escape and breed with natural salmon populations, possibly causing their extinction. Other GM animals in development include cows that make human breast milk, pigs that produce less pollution, and pigs that contain healthy fats.
Nanotechnology is the development and application of nano-sized particles, which are on roughly the same tiny scale as the molecules of life, such as proteins and DNA. According to Kampers, all foods are naturally nano. “Food is a nanostructured material,” he says. “That is why nanotech is so interesting for the food industry.” Scientists are beginning to get more control over the chemistry of nanoparticles, which may offer new opportunities to build food from the nanoscale up.
One potential application of nanotechnology in the food industry is the creation of nanopackages of nutrients. “If you want to fortify food products with something that is healthy, then often these components spoil the taste of the food product,” says Kampers. In a trick learned from the pharmaceutical industry, scientists are developing nutrient-filled nanoparticles that can withstand the digestive juices in the mouth and stomach, releasing encapsulated nutrients directly into the small intestine for absorption.
Another area of investigation is nano foods that taste sweet or fatty but actually contain few unhealthy ingredients. For example, researchers are working on making particles that display either fat or sugar molecules on their outside—where the tasty substances can interact with taste buds. The inside of these particles would be made of something healthy, either water or another nutrient. It would be like a crystal of sugar that’s only sweet on its very outer layer, but on the inside is, say, fiber.
Agriculture today is dominated by monoculture—a single species of plant grown all by itself upon giant expanses of land. Those crops are mostly wheat, rice, or corn. These three carbohydrate-rich plants provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each of them is deficient in some essential nutrients. An abundance of inexpensive yet nutrient-poor carbohydrate sources in the diet (sugary sodas, baked goods) is most likely a factor in the obesity epidemic. For these reasons, the future of agriculture may not include fields of corn as far as the eye can see.
The Land Institute, a Kansas nonprofit, wants to change monoculture by developing and promoting “polyculture,” an ancient system of agriculture that involves growing multiple species of plants together. “More diverse cropping arrangements could result in a greater diversity of foods being grown, which could translate into less consumption of just one or two primary foodstuffs (corn and wheat, for example),” says Timothy Crews, PhD, director of research and research ecologist at the Land Institute. A more diverse diet may be a healthier one, he says. “Also, most polycultures we are working with involve intercropping with legumes, which can produce food high in protein and fiber.” Beyond its potential health benefits, polyculture could cut down on the need for pesticides, improve soil health, and reduce energy needs, according to the Land Institute.
While many people embrace technology in most aspects of life, the furor over GM foods serves as a lesson about how controversial it can be to apply new technology to what we eat. What’s more, study after study has shown that food is more than just the sum of its parts—that taking a vitamin is not the same as eating a food that contains the vitamin. The truth is that researchers are still trying to understand the basics of how food influences health. As they do, food scientists may have a real chance at designing healthier foods. And, if food technology someday can help curb the spread of obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, people may start to feel less resistant to the food of the future.