Edge of Innovation

The future of food: pea burgers, ant egg salads and caterpillar sushi


“Twenty years from now companies like Beyond Meat will be making foods that taste just like meat but eliminate the need for cattle and other animals to be eaten. This will result in us being able to utilize 35 times less lamb, 15 times less water and could be as much as 20 times less costly.” – Richard Branson, TIME magazine.

While technologies like vertical farming, GM crops and vat-grown meat will attempt to improve the efficiency of food production, one of the toughest challenges we face is changing how we feed ourselves. With an unhealthy diet that’s predominantly meat-based and often heavily processed (for convenience), cattle farming is accelerating deforestation and releases more greenhouse gases than all of the planet’s cars, trains, ships and planes combined.

The future of food will involve eating less meat

One way is to slow this destruction is to farm less meat, which means eating less meat. But while vegetarians might be happy chowing down on low-fat Quorn burgers, Linda McCartney sausages and nut cutlets, they’re unlikely to satisfy or sway most ardent meat-eaters. Why? These foods might look and taste similar to their meaty counterparts, but they don’t feel the same when you chew them.

An improvement would be to offer people something that is just as tasty and fibrously textured as the meat they enjoy, but that doesn’t come from an animal.

Beyond Meat Beast Burger
Beyond Meat’s Beast Burger is a fake meat patty made from pea protein, oil, spinach, broccoli, carrot, tomato, beet and shiitake mushroom.

Beyond Meat is just one company trying to do exactly that and its new Beast Burger not only looks like a beef patty, but it grills like one, chews like one and tastes like one. In fact, this yellow pea-based quarter pounder claims to have more protein than beef, more healthy omegas than salmon and zero cholesterol.

Impossible Foods is another startup trying to mimic meat tissue and muscle textures using plants. Its Impossible Burger is still under development, but hit the headlines by using hemoglobin-based “plant blood” to replicate the taste of red meat. Patrick Brown, the 60-year-old Stanford University professor behind the company told the WSJ that he believed livestock was “an antiquated technology”.

If Brown can perfect his Impossible Burger, it could change everything.

“Considering the speed of change, the money and smarts being thrown at the problem, and the desperate need, it seems likely that sometime in the next decade, Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or another rival will perfect vegetarian beef, chicken, and pork that is tastier, healthier, and cheaper than the fast-food versions of the real thing. It will be a textbook case of disruptive technology: overnight, meat will become the coal of 2025 — dirty, uncompetitive, outcast.” – Rowan Jacobsen, Outside magazine.

The Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods
Looks like a beef burger. Cooks like a beef burger. It even bleeds like a beef burger. But this Impossible Burger is 100% plant.

Not everybody is convinced by technology’s quest for meatless meat. “To get people to switch from meat we’ll need some pretty amazing innovation,” wrote Dan Nosowitz in Modern Farmer. “It won’t come from trying to imitate existing foods. It’ll come from making entirely new foods.”

The future of food could put caterpillars and crickets on the menu

Perhaps this is where eating insects (entomophagy) comes in. You might recoil at the idea of dining on mealworms or termites, and nobody would blame you. In the Western world, we’re more likely to stamp on ants than fry up their eggs and serve them in tacos. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) “it is estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people.”

The FAO data makes a compelling argument for integrating insects into western diets – they are typically “rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc.” Compared to beef, which has an iron content of 6 mg per 100 g of dry weight, the iron content of a locust is between 8 and 20 mg per 100 g.

The benefits go beyond the nutritional elements too – insects can be farmed in smaller areas, they produce less greenhouse gas emissions plus they typically require less feed and water.

What’s not to like? Oh yes. They’re bugs.

Getting Westerners to eat insects will be a challenge, but it’s one that several companies think that they can overcome. For example, the “Chirps” developed by crowdfunded startup Six Foods are potato-style chips that are made from beans, rice and cricket flour – they have three times the protein compared to normal chips, are gluten free and half the fat. There’s nothing visibly insectoid about them.

Six Foods Chirps
The Six Foods Chirps are potato-style chips with a sneaky insect component. They’re made with nutty-tasting cricket flour.

UK company Ento takes a similar tack and has ambitious plans to overcome people’s aversion to eating insects by presenting them in a different way. It sees a future where we buy honey caterpillar croquettes and dried cricket mince at the supermarket or pick up a readymade “Ento Box” that contains sushi-style cubes of vegetables and ground-up waxworms (see top image). Ento might be onto something. After all, 20 years ago, the Japanese idea of eating raw fish sounded wholly unappealing.

Fake meat and mealworm nuggets are just two of the ideas that could help shape the future of food. While the technology to make these foods exists today, our willingness to eat them needs to catch up. Not only are these new foods fighting against an established farming industry, they are battling against years of human conditioning and tradition. Even though a Beast Burger and a grasshopper salad might be healthier for us in the long term (and kinder to the planet), we might not want to eat them.

What do you think we’ll be eating in 2035? Let us know in the comments below.


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