Those of us who still garden have a rather quaint view of food and technology. We plant seeds, help them grow, harvest and eat (cooking optional).
Meat or other sources of protein are a bit of an afterthought compared to the taste of those first seasonal bites of melt-in-your mouth potatoes, beans, beets and carrots.
So it is with some interest we read through some of the proceedings from the recent “Where Science Feeds Innovation” conference hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in Chicago recently.
Presentations there focused on where technology is taking our palates. Suffice to say, it has more to do with engineering than brushing off the soil.
For example, 3D printers are seen as the next big thing in food processing.
According to Hod Lipson, PhD, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a co-author of the book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, it is a good fit with the food business because it costs the same to mass produce food as it does to customize.
“The technology is getting faster, cheaper and better by the minute. Food printing could be the killer app for 3D printing,” Lipson said in a report on his presentation published by the Institute of Food Technologists.
For example, Lipson said, users could choose from a large online database of recipes, put a cartridge with the ingredients into their 3D printer at home, and it would create the dish just for that person. The user could customize it to include extra nutrients or replace one ingredient with another.
The U.S. military sees the potential. Mary Scerra, food technologist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Massachusetts said that by 2025 or 2030, the military envisions using 3D printing to customize meals for soldiers that taste good, are nutrient dense, and could be tailored to a soldier’s particular needs.
“Imagine war fighters in remote areas — one has muscle fatigue, one has been awake for a long period without rest, one lacks calories, one needs electrolytes, and one just wants a pizza,” Scerra said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could just print and eat?”
According to the report, there are just a few hurdles yet to overcome: the cost of bringing the technology to remote areas, the logistics of making it work in those locations and, printing food that tastes good.
“If the meals aren’t palatable, they won’t be consumed,” Scerra said. “It doesn’t matter how nutritious they are.”
Which brings us to another big innovation in food technology — those Petri dish hamburgers we first learned about a couple of years ago — the ones that cost about $30,000 per bite and taste ‘almost’ like the real thing.
Mark J. Post, chair of the department of physiology and professor of vascular physiology and tissue engineering, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, is refining his patty created from the stem cells from a cow. So far, he has achieved something that is consistent in look, texture and colour to a traditional ground beef burger — but lacking in taste.
He told the conference he is confident his recipe for his $300,000 cultured hamburger will come down in price — to about $65 per kg. Once he gets the taste up too, he’s confident there will be a market for it as a solution to the ethical dilemma many have about eating animals.
“We eat livestock beef because we like it,” Post said. “Once you have alternatives, you can no longer do that. Eventually, the ethical dilemma will be for cultured beef versus livestock beef.”
Other presenters said it will be other protein alternatives, such as algae, quinoa and pulses, that take centre stage as the global community looks for tasty alternatives to reduce meat consumption, reduce food waste and feed the world.
Meanwhile, people living in other parts of the world have developed a taste for another meat alternative: insects. In fact, a kg of crickets in a Kinshasa market costs $50, more than twice the price of beef. As food sources go, bugs are high in protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals and low fat. They don’t cost much to raise either.
Efforts are underway in Africa to increase the supply of insects so that market prices fall to a level that ordinary people can afford. It seems logical under this scenario that corn with worms in it would be considered value added.
We don’t know where all this is going. But we do note the recurring theme of taste.
Instead of investing in making manufactured food flavourful and feeding soldiers at war, we wonder whether these bright scientific minds wouldn’t be more productively focused on such matters as transforming battlefield pawns back into citizens eating pizza at home with their families. Now that would please the palate.