Saturday, April 20, 2013

2025 A Food Odyssey: The Future of Food

When you think about innovation and creativity you likely immediately think about electronic gadgets, automobiles, architecture and infrastructure maybe even advances in medicine.  But think about food for a minute. Many of the foods in our pantries and refrigerators would have been scoffed at had they been available just ten years ago. What would you have thought about milk with algae in it?  Yes, you can buy milk that has been fortified with algae to boost its omega-3 fatty acid content.  What about gluten free pasta made out of banana chips? Do you remember those weird Chia Pet things? Now chia seeds are widely available and are considered a super healthy food. Have you ever seen a sprouted Chia Pet?  Chances are you weren’t all that tempted to take a bite out if it. Over time new forms of food are thrown into the product cycle and eventually they are adopted and we don’t even give it a second thought.

Where do we get our food? For the sake of brevity, we get food from animals and plants. Biotech companies are constantly engineering different forms of crops such as corn to make them more resistant to drought. North American cattle are also being breed with their African cousins to combat heat and drought in order to provide a more reliable source of meat.  In America, 88% of corn, 94% of soybeans, 93% of canola, and 95% of sugar beets (50% of the sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from GM sugar beets) are genetically modified (GM).

So needless to say innovation plays a huge role in the food that we eat on a daily basis. So what does the food science industry have in the pipeline?

The following foods are being tested as we speak and are no longer mere thoughts in the minds of scientists/marketers.

Everyone by now has heard that omega-3’s are extremely beneficial for our health.  And the food industry wants to capitalize on this “opportunity.”  How do hot dogs and ice cream fortified with fish oil sound? A type of fish gelatin is being tested that will be immersed into ice cream and hot dogs. They are just working to perfect the taste, texture and mouth feel once that is accomplished expect this stuff to be available next year.

GM pigs are also ready to roll just waiting for a brave soul to take a leap of faith. It seems investing in GM pigs is a little taboo.

What about stem cell beef grown in a test tube? Said to be 2 years away.

What about milk with the flu vaccine? If you won’t get your flu shot they’ll just stick it in your milk.

Mini livestock… I am not talking small cows here but insects!  They were good enough for Indiana Jones. Did you know that bugs have more protein, calcium and iron than beef?

Algae in the omega-3 fortified milk may soon come from giant algae farms. Originally researched by NASA, algae can be grown in the ocean and is rich in omega-3, plant protein, and even vitamin B-12.

In 2003 Chinese scientists created a GM cow that can make human breast milk. They took human genes and inserted them into a cow embryo and artificially inseminated a cow with them.  Just like that they had milk that was 80% the equivalent of human breast milk. Why? The population in China is exploding and women can’t always breast feed and they have a huge population of orphans in China. Breast milk is better for children than formula so science intervened to solve a cultural “problem.”

And that gets to the source of much of this innovation it is fueled by the needs of society with rapidly growing populations in concert with ever dwindling resources.

Climate change and drought are the #1 limiting factor in food production. It has been estimated that 30% of the arable land in the world is consumed by livestock when you take into account the whole operation including crops for feed and pasture for roaming. Consider that just one 4 ounce burger requires as much water as running your bathroom sink for 24 hours a day for an entire week.

We need to find alternatives to the current food production system.  And as much as I advocate for eating local, organically raised/grown foods it’s likely insufficient to feed the world.

What about GM foods, are they ok for human consumption? Unfortunately no one really knows. There has been no published data to date on the safety of GM foods! Many independent scientists refute claims that GM foods are safe largely because the evidence is not there, it’s never been published. That seems to be the biggest issue with GM foods is the lack of transparency. The companies that make them don’t want them labeled and are unwilling to publish data about them.  It seems like they have something to hide. All we can do is continue to push for more transparency so we can make informed decisions in relation to GM foods.

GM foods may be a lifesaver for some nations. The biotech industry has engineered “golden rice” that is fortified with vitamin A to combat death and blindness for people in Africa. But it has been blocked for 12 years by global anti-GMO activists who have lobbied against it largely out of belief that Africa is nothing but a testing ground for Big Pharma and that it could also open “Pandora’s Box” to unregulated GM crops.

When it comes to food nothing it seems is black and white. In my mind we shouldn’t label foods as good or bad for us, it really depends on the circumstances involved.  Do we need GM “golden rice” in the U.S.? We likely do not but it makes sense in a region of the globe with little water, extreme heat and poverty.

Also consider that genetic modifications to food and plants have been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. Have you ever tried a honey crisp apple? Delicious right, it seems to have all the best qualities of the other apples. It didn’t exist twenty years ago! I don’t see anyone boycotting the apple orchard over these apples.

So the question you have to ask yourself is this do we need these things?

The banana chip pasta is fine, that surely isn’t going to harm our health. Honey crisp apples are awesome we have to keep those! The flu-fighting milk, human breast milk from cows, and stem cell beef is another story, that all sounds a little scary to me. The omega-3 fortified ice cream and hot dogs just sounds gross; I don’t think we need that.  You’re better off having sockeye salmon for dinner and ice cream for dessert and saving your hot dog for the annual pilgrimage to a Tiger game.

The best strategy is to keep it simple. Avoid adversarial relationships with food. A bowl of ice cream or a few slices of pizza here and there are not going to be the limiting factor in your goal to improve your health and fitness. It’s what you do consistently that matters the most. Make it a habit to be consistent with whole foods, locally grown and raised when possible (we are fortunate in this regard) and inconsistent with the treats, but enjoy them when you do have them.

Interesting new book that examines the future of food:

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