It sometimes seems as though we’re stuck in a food rut. Yes, we now can zap meals in a microwave oven or order food on our smartphones. But what are the next earth-shattering breakthroughs in food?
Thanks largely to technological advances, an array of futuristic food innovations are on the menu, and many of them serve up healthier alternatives to what we’re currently putting on our plates and in our mouths.
“Right now, the default food choice tends to be the least sustainably produced and most damaging to public health,” says Emily Byrd, a spokeswoman for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes “clean” meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products.
For instance, a Gallup poll in 2013 showed 80 percent of Americans eat fast food at least once a month, and almost half eat fast food at least once a week.
“People are choosing fast food and other similar options because it tastes good, it’s cheap and it’s convenient — the same three reasons that govern almost all consumer food choice,” Byrd says.
Byrd sees a future where that mindset will be flipped like a pancake.
“By harnessing the power of market forces and food innovation, companies have the power to make the foods that are best for people and the planet the default choice, not the difficult choice,” she says.
Here’s a look at five fascinating innovations in food.
1. Lab-grown meat
Coming to a grocery store near you: lab-grown meat.
Companies like Hampton Creek Foods, Memphis Meats and Mosas Meat are working on producing lab-grown meat, otherwise known as “clean” meat, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Clean meat is created in a lab using cellular agriculture, a technology that grows real meat from cells without raising or slaughtering animals, the American Marketing Association says.
In the not-too-distant future, Byrd says, “it will seem just as absurd to raise animals in order to slaughter them as it now would seem to travel cross country by hopping into a horse and buggy. Factory farming — like the horse and buggy — is an outdated technology. A better alternative is imminent.”
2. Water bubbles
Like it or not, the plastic water bottle is a fixture in America. In 2016, the typical American gulped down 39 gallons of bottled water, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a consulting firm.
Those bottles could be a thing of the past if the edible water bubble takes off.
One Green Plant says the bubble comes in the shape of a “pliant, transparent globe of fluid,” and consists of two membrane layers made of sodium alginate, a substance obtained from brown algae and calcium chloride.
“The jelly-like consistency of the water bubble is accomplished through the process of gelification, which comprises of adding an edible gelling agent to liquids,” according to One Green Plant. “What is achieved through all that is, to put it simply, a squishy blob of water that can be consumed whole!”
Earlier this year, One Green Planet reported the inventors of the water bubble, called Ooho!, were raising money to get the product off the ground. Each globe of fluid contains 250 milliliters of water and costs about 2 cents to make.
“This curious product could be quite a revolution on the market,” One Green Planet says.
3. Pea-based “dairy” products
Actually, pea milk — said to be healthier and tastier than almond milk — already is a reality, thanks to a Silicon Valley startup called Ripple. Now, the company is working on iterations like half-and-half and Greek yogurt, according to Fast Company magazine. Other Ripple products, such as ice cream, are on the drawing board.
“At the base of the products is a proprietary ingredient the company calls Ripptein, made in a patent-pending process that the company says strips out the flavor of plant material and leaves almost purely protein, so its milk product doesn’t taste like peas,” Fast Company reports.
Among the stated advantages of these pea-based products are less sugar and fat than traditional dairy products, and an amount of protein similar to soy products.
4. Vegetables grown without soil
Here’s the dirt on vegetable production: At least two projects are underway that enable vegetables to grow in a soil-free environment.
Nikian Aghababaie, a product design student at England’s Nottingham Trent University, has devised a kit to cultivate vegetables without soil and with minimal water. Aghababaie relied on NASA technology to develop this innovation.
“The technology works by suspending seedlings or cuttings from plants or vegetables midair in a growing chamber,” the university says.
NASA uses a complex version of the technology at the International Space Station so astronauts can grow fruit and vegetables in outer space, according to Nottingham Trent.
Meanwhile, a similar project is in the works in Arizona.
Austin, Texas-based Civic Farms is building a vertical farm in Arizona in one of two 20,000-square-foot domes — or “lungs” — that regulated pressure inside a sealed glass structure during experiments to study survivability in the 1990s, according to Courthouse News.
At full capacity, the vertical farm will produce 225,000 to 300,000 pounds a year of leafy greens and herbs such as arugula, basil, kale and lettuce, Paul Hardej, co-founder and CEO of Civic Farms, told Courthouse News.
“People want know what they eat and what’s in their food and how healthy and good it is for them,” Hardej says. “Growing food in city centers or close to city centers where people live makes perfect sense.”
5. Personalized nutrition
Our genes and our gut bacteria are contributing to a new wave in nutrition: personalized diets.
A number of innovators are coming up with ways for us to tap into our DNA (genes) and our digestive tracts (gut bacteria) to help guide us toward what we should — and should not — eat.
“General nutritional recommendations, published by governmental agencies, are not effective for controlling … rises in weight and disease. This is largely because different people respond differently to food,” the Personalized Nutrition Project says. “Therefore, food choices that are good for one person may not be good for another.”
However, skeptics cast doubt on the viability of personalized nutrition, at least for now. They concede that each of us has individualized dietary needs, but they’re not fully prepared to embrace personalized nutrition.
When it comes to genetics-based nutrition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that applying “nutritional genomics” to complex chronic diseases is an “emerging science,” but incorporating that into general dietary advice “is not ready for routine dietetics practice.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a study from the University of Toronto found that people who get DNA-based advice improve their diets more than people who get standard dietary advice.
As for diets based on our gut bacteria profile, scientists have barely scratched the surface regarding the connection between DNA and good nutrition, the New York Times says.
“I think companies offering personalized dietary advice are probably running ahead of the evidence,” John Mathers, director of the Human Nutrition Research Center at England’s Newcastle University, told the Times in 2016.
Yet scientists at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science think otherwise. Their 2015 study of personalized nutrition found that participants experienced consistent changes in the composition of their gut bacteria, suggesting gut bacteria may be influenced by personalized diets.
“It’s common knowledge among dieticians and doctors that their patients respond very differently to assigned diets,” says Eran Segal, a computer science professor at Weizmann. “We can see in the data that the same general recommendations are not always helping people, and my biggest hope is that we can move this boat and steer it in a different direction.”