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We’ve all read about, and most likely tasted, the spoils of the billion dollar “plant-based” burger industry – but in her new book Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, journalist Larissa Zimberoff takes us deeper into food technology as she investigates the state of what she calls “new foods.” She shows us how the pea protein sausage is made and takes us into labs where she tastes things like koji bacon and chicken-less eggs. She explores the pros and cons of vertical farming, asks if cultured meat is good for the environment, and contemplates the feasibility of upcycling food waste. She also introduces us to the people behind the new food movement who strive to feed the planet in a way that mitigates the damage industrial agriculture inflicts upon Mother Earth. With a conversational style, insightful culinary and historical context, Zimberoff also has a knack for making food science easy to understand. Technically Food may be the panacea consumers need to navigate new food technology and make choices that are right for our health and the planet. We spoke to her about her research.
You make no qualms about your preference for a mostly plant-based, whole food diet, free of processed foods, but you also raise the point that much of the food technology you write about may help mitigate climate change and curb the damage caused by industrial food systems. With that in mind, why should we incorporate these new foods into our diet and how can we do it in a mindful, healthy way?
There is always new research to follow about what exactly is healthy, but I think the best way to support our planet, and our own bodies, is to eat an incredibly diverse diet. So, try new foods! Throw new vegetables into your grocery basket. Try new proteins like plant-based crab cakes or mycelium bacon. Diversity will benefit your own microbiome, and evolve both your palate and the marketplace by signaling to grocers and manufacturers that we do want diversity, not just the same foods – burgers, fries, chicken nuggets – and vegetables. The fact is, there are between 7,000 and 30,000 edible plants and fewer than 200 have become staples in our diet. As consumers, demanding choice will drive food innovation and hopefully eventually lead to new crops being planted, and new proteins being developed.
You point out there’s not much FDA oversight in the food industry and that FDA is more reactive than proactive, so when consumers look to buy something like a piece of faux fish or a vegan cheese, when reading labels, what should we look for?
The nutrition facts panel is closely regulated by the government, and something we can count on. So don’t miss it. If you don’t know a word, look it up. If you have questions, dig in to find out more. Is the ingredient list super long? That’s not a good sign. A quick scan of the list should highlight whether it’s a “clean” label or not. By clean I mean simple and basic with a short ingredient list. Complex nutrition facts panels mean only one thing – highly processed with complicated supply chains that depend on multiple countries to exist.
What do you think is the most successful food technology today that checks all the boxes: yummy, sustainable, and minimally processed?
The ingredient that I think has potential and checks all the boxes is mycelium, or fungi. It can be grown easily in large stainless steel tanks with the addition of basic nutrients and water. The end product is high in protein and includes some carbohydrates. It even includes some fiber! It doesn’t need extensive post processing (after the material is made) to wind up into faux versions of bacon, chicken, and even steak. I’ve tried it all of these ways, and yes, it can be yummy, too.
The chapter in Technically Food about cultured meat – derived from growing animal cells in the lab – is at once fascinating and a little creepy. You explain that we’re told the products made from these cells are identical to the animal they came from, but this lab process doesn’t require the harming of animals. Are these companies presenting that their new meats can be food options for vegans and vegetarians?
Actually, the funny thing here is that these products are not aimed at vegans and vegetarians. These companies are keenly focused on meat eaters. While many of the founders are vegans, with a mission to stop animal cruelty and industrial animal-based agriculture, I have a few concerns. The first: we’re being told to shift to a plant-based diet, so will this meat be healthier for us? Or are we spending millions of dollars to develop foods that are just as detrimental to our health? Also, these startups are focused on protecting their intellectual property, which means they don’t share to the level that many of us crave and even demand. Without transparency, how can we fully comprehend what it is they are potentially selling?
Many of the companies you write about are small, mission-based innovators who want to make healthy, sustainable food but, can that mission be preserved when big corporations snap up these companies and venture capitalists make big investment?
Smaller companies being acquired by bigger companies has long been a problem in the food industry. It’s concerning because when small startups partner up with big corporations, they can lose control over their ingredients, they’re manufacturing and sourcing. When that happens, consumers may never know if they’re getting a ‘less-than’ product. Even if we look over the labels, we may not be able to tell if anything has changed. Personally, I hope food startups resist being acquired. In order to create a more diverse and equitable food system, I want more voices and opinions involved in our food system versus large amounts of power in the hands of a few multinationals.
I loved the upcycle chapter of the book because I never considered all the waste produced from pressed juices and products like olive oil and tofu. Do you think there’s hope that more companies will convert to closed source systems and/or figure out how to use perfectly good food waste and turn it into something delicious?
A closed loop model is a lofty goal, and one that may be hard to achieve. If we think about a giant beer company that has leftover spent grains, their expertise is making beer, not making another food that comes from those grains. But I do think we’ll see collaboration between companies – where one company takes the waste from another – and I hope that new foods that we’ve yet to see will come out of these partnerships. For example, there’s a startup in Sacramento that is taking potato peels from a company that makes French fries. The nutrients from this potato waste will aid the growth of their mycoprotein that can eventually be used in a variety of meat alternatives.
At the end of your book, you ask all kinds of savvy food folks – chefs, journalists, historians, and scientists – what they think we’ll be eating in 20 years. So, I’m going to ask you, what do you think we’ll be eating in 20 years? And will it taste good?
In 10 years, we’re going to see a wide range of hybrid foods, with food-tech slowly creeping into the foods we know. A percentage of my future burger may be plant based and the remaining portion may be cell based. In 20 years, we’ll have Gen Z and Gen Alpha to thank for our food still being delicious. Both generations will be more adept in the kitchen, more flexible in their culinary opinions, and more vocal about their expectations from big business. However, if at any time there’s total climate shutdown, then all bets are off and food-tech will leap to innovate and produce food from almost nothing — air, carbon, and microbes. Get ready for the food cube!