Are we ready for a brave new world of food technology?

Technically Food looks at the world of new food products from a skeptical eye. The author, Larissa Zimberoff, is a journalist who explores links between food, business, and technology. She does not appear to have a background in food science or nutrition but has worked in the tech industry. She is a skeptic about processed foods with a diet that tends to natural, whole foods. Yet, the author travels all over the country to assess new trends. With her dietary concerns, we would think that she would be reluctant to try these novel foods. Not so! She was willing to eat everything offered in pursuing the book. We face the unknown as we ruminate on the future of food. The book asks us “Can we be healthy, respect food traditions, and save the environment all at the same time?”

I learned about the book and its author from Adam Yee’s podcast—My Food Job Rocks. Needless to say, I did not expect that Zimberoff to be such a processed-food skeptic. Most of Adam’s interviews reflect positive attitudes about processed food. Technically Food introduces us to a range of novel foods. We encounter intriguing ingredients, new food trends, and innovative techniques invading the world of processed products. In this post I focus on three of the author’s adventures on her road trip into the future of food.

Upcycling may have been the best and most informative chapter in the book. It has become a buzzword in food trade articles. I sort of new what it meant and sort of didn’t. Zimberoff explains it very well. In short, upcycling is “the art of capturing still-nutritious waste from one process to create entirely new edible products.” When I was back in college, we used to call it by-product utilization. Most of these by-products ended up as animal feed. The book points to Amanda Little’s The Fate of Food which I reviewed on this site. The message is that it is better to avoid food waste than to recycle it. I am not sure whether repurposing leftovers into new forms counts as avoiding food waste or upcycling.

Healthier diets tend to produce the most waste. Unprocessed foods spoil in a short time. Processed foods do not. The author then moves to the concept of ultra-processed foods. By definition, ultra-processing is unhealthier than mere processing. She is skeptical that we can derive anything healthy from a waste stream. From the industry’s standpoint, an upcycled ingredient must be edible and safe. The discussion reverts to a healthy/unhealthy food dichotomy. 

In Technically Food a manufacturer upcycles an ingredient by recovering it from a food processing operation. It is then incorporated into an industrial food formulation. Any formulated food is ultra-processed and thus unhealthy. It comes down to the difference between intact and fractionated ingredients. The dilemma becomes treating processing waste as sewage or recovering edible, safe ingredients. These distinctions become philosophical. There are major differences in perspective on healthiness of food. More on this topic next week.

The book mentions food waste but it does not distinguish loss from waste. The Harvard School of Public Heath defines food waste as “food that is fit for consumption but consciously discarded at retail or consumption.” Food loss “occurs before the food reaches the consumer as a result of issues in the production, storage, processing, and distribution phases.” By that standard, upcycling decreases food loss not food waste. Why does this matter? Around the world food loss is a major problem. Of particular concern is loss in the field and transport to market. In industrialized countries, food waste at retail and in the home is the problem. For a brilliant description of implications read Waste: Uncovering the Global Waste Scandal.

Plant-based burgers. Technically Food declares fast food as unhealthy. It is an attitude that prevails among people who rarely eat at fast-food restaurants. The book concludes that plant burgers are as unhealthy but make us feel good about the planet. There are 17 ingredients in the Impossible Burger, way too many to be healthy. Remember the five-ingredient rule? Does that rule hold for restaurant or home-cooked meals?

The book compares a Slim Jim to an Impossible Burger suggesting that the manufacturing process is similar. Obvious suspect ingredients in the Impossible Burger include textured soy and potato protein. Pseudo-healthy additives include coconut and sunflower oil, riboflavin, and zinc in the burger. Sodium nitrate maintains color in the Slim Jim. The Impossible Burger uses tocopherols to stabilize the color provided by soy heme. Tocopherols are natural antioxidants which also function as Vitamin E in our bodies. Is the comparison of the Impossible Burger and the Slim Jim accurate and fair? None of this matters if we write off plant-based burgers as ultra-processed.

Zimberoff focuses on the composition and manufacturing of plant-based foods. The main reason for manufacturing these products is to reduce our reliance on meat. She mentions sustainability only in passing in this chapter. The heart of her argument is that ingredients from many sources form a novel product. Artificial foods should not mimic whole foods. Such practices are neither healthy nor sustainable.

Cell-based meats represent the book’s introduction to cellular agriculture. There is an excellent description of the process starting with an animal cell. In many ways the process is like fermentation as the animal cells divide. We never learn the inputs into the bioreactor to feed the process. That is one of her major concerns. This information falls under the category of trade secrets. The author tasted the chicken from a lab at Memphis Meats. To her surprise and admiration, they nailed the texture. The juiciness she expected was lacking. It was much better as part of a dish than by itself. She envisions a five-ingredient product: chicken (cell-based), sea salt, chipotle pepper, sugar, garlic. Still, she was not sold. Meat is so much more than protein. It provides a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Will cell-based meats deliver on these nutrients as well?

Zimberoff notes that most founders introduced in book are vegan. Their motivation ranges from adopting healthier diets to protecting animal welfare to moderating climate change. Developing a meaty texture and cost are the main challenges facing these products. Entrance of plant-based meats into the commercial market stimulated the flow of venture capital into cell-based meat companies. She asks if these products as good for the climate as advertised? She notes that chickens emit less greenhouse gases than cows. Thus, cell-based beef is a better bet on saving the planet than cell-based chicken. The book suggests that adoption of this technology should be by “informed choice rather than through government intervention or market pressures?” The author finishes with many questions about safety and environment associated with cellular agriculture.

Future foods projected to 2041. In the last chapter Zimberoff asks the question “What are we eating in 20 years?” She receives responses from 19 food experts ranging in age from 33-84. Two-thirds of the respondents are under 50. Most of them are optimists. A few are pessimistic. The optimists envision a future world of many more people eating foods they would like to see them eat. One hopes we could feed more people on less land. Another sees food as vaccines with fewer added chemicals. Optimists want more real food and shorter food chains. A clash emerges between dependence on local food and increasing international diversity of available food. One respondent looks for more variety in our home-cooked meals in types of food and a wider range of plant crops. There is a desire for more home cooking with raw ingredients. One expert calls for a typical plate of 85% veggies and 15% animal protein. Another advocated for more indigenous and wild foods.

Many respondents favor regenerative agriculture, for meat in particular. A more pessimistic view suggests that this scenario would lead to elimination of cheap meat. Only the rich or those willing to eat meat a few times a year would benefit. One person would appreciate the absence of cheap meat. Another view looks to tastier, healthier, and more sustainable food. These traits appear to be synergistic without tradeoffs. Attitudes on alternative meats range from disgust with the idea to a desire for less animal suffering. One longs for less intensive agriculture. Another one calls for curbing population growth.

The pessimists emphasize that people are slow to change as our plates will look then much like they do today. Major changes to food habits and new foods take a long time. If anything, food will be more industrialized then than today. One person noted that cell-based foods are on a similar timeline as plant-based meats were a decade ago. If plant-based meats make a major impact in ten years, how long will it take for cell-based meats to become commonplace? What event will induce the major changes in consumer attitudes expected by optimists in this survey? How will critics of these technologies overcome the pervasive influence of the Big Food marketing machine? How will agriculture become less intensive with fewer farmers and more mouths to feed?

Take-home lesson. I much prefer the term ‘technically food’ to ‘fake food’ or not ‘real’ food. The term combines the technical aspects of novel foods and their questionable status. As a follow-up to her book, Zimberoff writes a blog on the topic. A recent post on the site describes potential consequences of the end of the avocado. The best feature of the book is that she goes out to sample these foods. Then she and tries to understand their manufacturing processes. She gets further into the mysteries than most. Companies block access to corporate secrets in an effort of self-protection. Advances in alternative meats need huge infusions of venture capital. By definition the successful will become part of Big Food. She poses fundamental questions about what we eat now, why we do, and what we will eat in the future. Her views of healthy food are much different from mine. Next week I explore the fundamental differences between our viewpoints.

Next week: Who gets to define which foods we should or should not be eating?

 

3 thoughts on “Are we ready for a brave new world of food technology?

  1. Glad to see a review of the book on your website. Good job. I heard about Larissa a while ago and was one of the original subscribers to her newsletter. She’s a good writer and as you note she likes to dig deeper than most. I stopped following the newsletter after a couple of issues however. Her theme became repetitious. I learned she was recovering from what I call a disordered eating syndrome – overfed and undernourished. Too many servings of packaged goodies leading to weight gain. Her background reminded me of another “avenging angel” reviewed on your webpage, Bee Wilson, ‘The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World’.

    As you note in the post Larissa tends to classify all industrially formulated food as not just ultra-processed but also unhealthy. My interest lies in breaking down that massive bucket of formulated food into more manageable sub-units.

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    1. Very interesting comments. Zimberoff does talk about some of her dietary challenges in the book. She does provide some clear delineations between her perspective on food and mine. Interestingly enough, many of her principles align with yours. You have helped me better understand and appreciate an alternate view of food. I will be addressing some of those differences in my post next week.

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