REMINDER: The #1 thing you can do to support the site is share the articles!
by Pauli Poisuo
Humanity has always had a weird relationship with food. We love it, but hate the way it’s making us fat. We readily recognize that everyone needs it, yet can’t seem to figure out how to distribute it without half the world going hungry and the other half wasting billions of dollars’ worth of it. We know that some foods are bad for us, but scientists can’t even agree on which ones they are.
The point is, food is complicated and delicious and strange. But just wait—it’s about to get stranger.
You’re likely already aware—the story’s been in the news for years—that scientists can grow meat in a lab now using cow cells and fetal bovine serum to culture a few cells into, uh, tiny, $50 strips of almost-beef. Sure, that’s a step up from the $250,000 lab-grown beefburger from 2013, but still, it’s pretty hefty for a small sliver with a taste that, as The Guardian politely puts it, “needs work.”
Sure, we get it—steak is always the first-billed star when food is discussed. It’s just that there’s another, much more easily replicated protein out there that doesn’t seem to get half as much love, despite being just as essential in turning humanity towards more sustainable eating habits. And no, we’re not talking about Soylent Green. We guess that would also technically solve a few food production issues, but ... just, no.
It’s lab-grown fish, baby, and everyone wants to make it happen ... including NASA, who have dabbled with vat-grown filets since 2002. Their original intention was the logical and understandable goal of steak nights in spaaaaaace! However, the researcher they set loose on the project, professor emeritus Morris Benjaminson of Touru University, soon discovered that the process worked better with fish meat: Fish is cheaper than meat, and cold-blooded, so its manufacture is less temperature-sensitive than with beef and pork. What’s more, seafood, not beef, is the essential protein for a not-insignificant part of the world, and some fish populations are at imminent risk of collapsing thanks to overfishing.
Today, the flag of lab-grown fish is flown by companies such as New Wave Foods, who have already created a synthetic, algae-based shrimp substitute that’s pretty close to the original, and Finless Foods, a company that’s affiliated with the University of Massachusetts that hopes to create an in vitro version of bluefin tuna meat in 2019.
Yeah, we know. Shape-shifting pasta sounds like an invention by the esteemed laboratories of Obvious, Inc. After all, doesn’t all dry pasta change shape when you cook it, in a stick-to-delicious-spaghetti kind of way?
Well, yes, but also, no. Although this particular invention may sound like a pretty boring innovation, seeing it in action is a completely different matter:
Holy crap! If those noodles took their transformation any further, they’d turn into tiny robots and destroy us all.
Shape-shifting pasta was invented in 2017 by MIT’s Tangible Media Group. They’re essentially flat pasta sheets that are engineered to change form in various ways. The obvious use for the product is practical: You can reduce shipping costs quite dramatically when your pasta can be packed into tight, stacked films that morph into a more conventional pasta shape when cooked.
What’s even cooler is that the films can be made to transform into much more complex shapes than ordinary pasta—like freaking flowers. Researchers have also created some ingenious cooking uses for the technology: For instance, they’ve managed to make a type of spaghetti that just ... splits up into smaller noodles when tossed in hot water. Seeing as the discs are so sensitive that they can even be made to wrap around beads of caviar, the possibilities are pretty endless.
Whenever humans domesticate another living thing, there’s a fair chance that we’ll over-breed them to the point where we end up with flat-faced pugs and bulldogs that can barely breathe, and horses that look like cartoon characters. This tendency extends far beyond fauna: Designer fruit is a comestible version of the trend. The cutthroat world of apple breeding is constantly looking for the next, carefully designed and painstakingly cross-pollinated superstar of the fruit bowl. The Golden Arctic is a genetically modified version of the classic Golden Delicious that doesn’t brown, which keeps the apple slices alluring in lunch boxes and fruit salads. The red-hued Kissabel has distinct berry tones, and the Hidden Rose is an extremely photogenic apple with green skin and vividly pink flesh.
Meanwhile, in Japan, there’s a huge market for fruit that has been grown to be as aesthetically-pleasing as possible. The market for giant Ruby Roman grapes, heart-shaped watermelons and less-than-conventionally-shaped strawberries the size of a tennis ball are sold on high-end fruit markets that resemble a jeweler’s stand, and a particularly desired fruit has been known to fetch as much as $27,000.
Fruit is awesome, but still.
But that’s just apples and, well, Japan. The real mad geniuses of the designer fruit world are working on the seemingly unassuming world of grapes. In 2013, one group of Californian farmers actually managed to create a grape that tasted like cotton candy, otherwise known as the last thing you’d expect to taste when biting into a healthy fruit. Unfortunately, there are few reports of the groundbreaking Cotton Candy Grape after that, so we’re forced to assume that the fruit wasn’t a hit. Well, it was either that or it came to life and overtook its creators.
Ridiculously Realistic Meat Substitutes
When it comes to food innovations, a meatless meat that tastes and feels like the real thing is the ultimate better mousetrap. It would enable vegetarians to feast on delicious and delightful meat without compromising their beliefs, and allow meat-eaters to keep doing their own thing without having to worry about livestock farting and belching the planet’s ozone layer to oblivion.
Plant-based meat substitutes are tricky because the taste is not the only thing you have to replicate. Real meat sizzles on the grill, and a steak bleeds when you let it rest, while plants ... don’t. Or rather, didn’t. Lately, a company called Impossible Foods has managed to replicate the juicy “bleeding” of a tasty hamburger patty with its modestly named Impossible Burger. The Impossible Burger is completely meat-free, but its combination of soy, genetically engineered yeast and a carefully curated mix of vegetable proteins manages to achieve a texture and taste that very closely resemble ground beef. The burger’s ultimate victory, however, is that it actually “bleeds”: The company has located a plant-based version of the hemoglobin protein called leghemoglobin, and bio-hacked it into a species of yeast that’s included in the recipe.
They could have come up with a better name, though. The Impossiburger? The Possibly a Burger? Possum Burger? Look, we’re not marketers.
Another innovation that approaches the meat substitute issue from the “complete package” standpoint is the Beyond Sausage, a plant-based sausage with the kind of ingredients you can actually read without an advanced science degree. Despite being plant-based, it looks, sizzles and apparently even tastes like a juicy, meat-based sausage, and even more importantly, comes in spicy Italian flavor. Impressiveness level: The Beyond Sausage was the only foodstuff to make Time’s exclusive “50 Best Inventions” list in 2018.
A Fungus That Can Turn Plastic Into Food
Sure, we can create all sorts of technologies to deal with our various problems with food production and distribution. But when you look at the grander scheme of lessening our impact on the planet, we’re still just sticking our finger in the hole of a leaking dam. After all, no matter where our food comes from, we still package it in plastic, which in turn keeps burying the world in trash. So, unless we figure out how to eat the plastic, there’s really no use in ...
… wait, hold on. We can do that? Science has actually figured out a way to turn plastic into food?
In 2012, researchers at Yale University discovered a rare mushroom that is capable of breaking down polyurethane plastic into a degraded mess that, most importantly, didn’t retain any toxicity. A whole bunch of science later, researchers Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger figured out that broken-down plastic that’s not toxic could potentially be turned into food. They set up a project called Fungi Mutarium, which cultivates the roots of two edible mushrooms with this plastic-breaking ability.
Still, don’t run off to wave your hat on the streets just yet: The process still has a few kinks that need to be ironed out. Primarily, it’s complicated. The plastic must first be sterilized in a special UV light chamber, and placed in a special growth sphere where it’s mixed with seaweed agar, starch and sugar. Fungi sprouts covered in liquid hydrogen then enter the mix, and after a few months, the plastic is broken down into ... something edible, but kind of neutral-tasting. However, the very fact that this can be done is a good sign—it’s just a matter of making the process simpler and the end product better tasting now. And when science finally figures out how to make this particular food taste like steak, we’re betting that the seas are going to be completely devoid of plastic waste within a decade.*
*Editor’s note: This is not an official prediction of The Modern Rogue. Though, that would be cool.
Like this article? Check out “Playing With Your Food, Modern Rogue Style” and “Meat-Hacking Scientists: Making Beef Without The Cow”.
Want to write for The Modern Rogue? You can! Just sign up for our writers’ workshop.