Bull Session

The Future of Food

June 14, 2018          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we take another look at the future of food, in particular, meat. Because the agriculture industry is the source of about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, there are serious environmental concerns about the consequences of producing meat for a growing global population. The UN predicts that the number of people on the planet will grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, from 7.6 billion today. Compared to vegetable protein, raising animals for food is highly inefficient, using more land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. This won’t work for a population of nearly 10 billion people.

While replicating meat in a convincing way is difficult, companies like Impossible Foods are now selling well-reviewed substitutes for ground beef. To see what the future of food might hold, we try out some meatball sandwiches made of Impossible Foods’ product for lunch. Join us as we discuss the results of our experiment, and the evolution of food tech in general.

Resources:
The Race to Make a Great Fake Steak

Jon:
Welcome to episode 262 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings, listeners.

Jon:
For our podcast this week, we’re going to take another look at the future of food. In particular, everyone’s favorite meal, meat.

Dirk:
Not everyone’s favorite meal, Jon.

Jon:
I’m kidding, of course. For me, I love eating a steak or a hamburger.

Dirk:
You’re a carnivore, carnivore.

Jon:
Conveniently, that’s part of what we’re going to discuss today. Of course, at a very high level, there are a number of environmental concerns when we talk about meat consumption. Agriculture as an industry is the source of about 15% of greenhouse gases and their emissions, which is roughly comparable to the amount of greenhouse gas released by the auto industry.

Dirk:
Which is pretty shocking.

Jon:
Yes. That’s not … You know, when you think about the environmental concerns, there’s a lot of attention paid to the efficiency of cars or electric vehicles and how we can optimize our transportation, right, but there’s not as much emphasis on discussion about what we’re eating and the way that contributes to global warming.

Dirk:
Very little, very little emphasis other than the most progressive individuals.

Jon:
I mean it’s true that, I mean we could probably impact greenhouse gases more by choosing to eat differently than changing our transportation. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still consider the way you are commuting or what have you, but if you want to have an impact, definitely what you eat is going to make a difference.

Dirk:
Yes.

Jon:
That’s the context, and another high level contributor to that is that the population of humans on this planet is growing quite rapidly. The UN predicts that a global population, which is 7.6 billion people today is going to grow by 2.2 billion to a 9.8 billion to 2050, so we’re closing in on 10 billion people by mid-century here, which means that there’s going to be that many more people who are eating potentially meat, because as people become more prosperous, they tend to eat more meat and more dairy, which means hundreds of metric tons, thousands of metric tons more meat being produced to satisfy that need.

Dirk:
Even more than that. 10 billion, right? I mean …

Jon:
Sure.

Dirk:
Yes.

Jon:
If you begin to see where that bottleneck’s going to be, where that pinch point, where this becomes really unsustainable, it’s probably already here. If it’s not here yet, it’s coming very soon. If there’s only, say, a couple billion people, you can set aside the land, the feed stock, the water, the fuel, the pesticides. Everything that’s needed to raise cattle for beef. You can set that aside, but as we approach 10 billion people, that’s just no longer a sustainable option. All of these is to say that considering other alternatives to animal generative protein is a smart thing to be doing. A number of start-up companies are doing that because frankly, the meat substitutes that we have, so far, well, they’re well-meaning, but they’re not really all that convincing.

Dirk:
Yes. I might say that the technology is still nascent.

Jon:
Or at least the majority of the substitute meat products on the shelves or in the frozen food section right now is not super great, which is a huge market opportunity for somebody who can figure that out. A couple years ago, I actually met the CEO of Impossible Foods at TEDMED when he was speaking. They had a really fantastic pitch just about how they were making their substitute meat product, which is vegetable-based, much, much more similar to meat by replicating … Basically, within the product itself, there’s … I’m going to get the terminology wrong, but it’s the flavors that come from the animal byproducts, more similar to the flavors you might get from the blood or the fat.

Dirk:
It’s a very specific umami flavor that comes from the meat.

Jon:
Right. They were getting rave reviews, and Dirk, you and I actually had the opportunity this afternoon to go over to a restaurant in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Dirk:
In Clover Food Lab.

Jon:
And try out some Impossible meatballs. They didn’t have an Impossible burger.

Dirk:
That was a bummer, wanted the burger.

Jon:
Yes, we very much wanted the burger, but lunch today was an Impossible meatball sandwich.

Dirk:
Jon, the question is, was it impossibly good?

Jon:
I didn’t think it was impossibly good, but I thought it was pretty darn good. It might be maybe pretty darn good foods rather than impossible. I don’t know, Dirk. Did you like your meatball sandwich?

Dirk:
I’ll say that I liked my meatball sandwich. You know, Jon, unlike you where I know you do buy vegetable-based, turkey-based fake meat in a way. It’s just part of your normal diet. I really haven’t eaten food like that in a long time. Probably as far back as the 1990s when it tasted like cardboard, and I just took for granted. It continues to taste like cardboard, so I’m coming at it from maybe a harsher perspective because I’m not comparing it to cardboard. I’m comparing it to real meatballs. I’m not huge meatball fan, but I do eat meatballs sometimes. I got to say, it was a good meatball. I don’t mean a good vegetable meatball. I mean a good meatball. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t the kind of meatball that I’m like, “Oh my God. I can’t wait to come back here again.” It was like, “Yes, this is good. It takes like a meatball.” It was slightly off, very slightly, but not in a bad way, not in a way that ruined it at all. You could tell something was a little bit different, and it was good.

Dirk:
Would I want to take a special trip to have more? Probably not. If somebody wanted to have lunch there, would I order it? Maybe. I’ll see what else is on the menu, but I would not … If I went over to a friend’s house and they were probably bringing out that same meatball sandwich, I’d be like, “Hey, this is good. You cooked a really nice sandwich here. I mean it.” Yes, I think it’s good. Compared to recent turkey vegetable meat options, Jon, it sounds like you think it’s great in that context.

Jon:
Yes. I mean from the perspective of someone who likes meatball subs, I know that you can drown it in sauce, which is probably part of the reason why they selected that configuration for their sandwiches over at Clover, just because the sauce is pretty strong in flavor and masks some of the differences that you might perceive otherwise.

Dirk:
Mine was not drowned in sauce. I don’t know if yours was, but mine, there was sauce on it. It did have a strong flavor, but I didn’t feel like they just drenched it in sauce to hid the meatball. Did you think so?

Jon:
I mean I think that was part of the calculation.

Dirk:
Okay, okay.

Jon:
I do. I think it reminded you of eating a meatball sub because the sauce flavor is similar, which is not to say that … I thought the texture was pretty good. When I looked at it, it even looked like a meatball. It didn’t look like, “Oh, somebody crushed together a bunch of something else and is trying to fool me that it’s a meatball,” right?

Dirk:
The color was a little off. Again, just a little. In taste, color, texture, everything was just slightly off but still okay.

Jon:
Usually, on a meatball sub, I just dump a ton of jalapenos on it, which I guarantee, it seemed very similar.

Dirk:
Yes.

Jon:
That wasn’t something that they offered, but I just always dump a bunch of …

Dirk:
Talk about masking flavors, Jon.

Jon:
Yes. I tend to like that sort of thing.

Dirk:
You’re a spicy guy, brother.

Jon:
I am. I think Impossible Foods is doing a pretty darn good job of creating this meat substitute. Now, so the next level really is about replicating like steak, right? That might be the holy grail of meat substitute, being able to go to a nice steak restaurant and have the right textures and flavors, but get to that point without maybe the quite-so-high a cost to the environment.

Dirk:
Yes.

Jon:
There are a number of labs that are working on this, and there’s two approaches. One is to make it from vegetable protein, which of course, very difficult to replicate the right textures because when you’re talking about meat, you’re talking about an assemblage of a lot of different elements within the animal and coming together to make those flavors, whether you’re talking about the sinews or the bone and the cartilage, and all of these things just make meat what it is. It’s hard to extrude that, right, in a lab setting.

Jon:
The other approach is a little creepy from my perspective, but it is the cultured meat, right? Cultured meat is way, way, way expensive, right, because you’re basically taking meat cells that can replicate, and you’re putting it into a substrate that allows this meat to be cultured and grow, and so for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can get to your fake steak, which may not taste very good. Those are the two main approaches. I think over the course of the next, say, like five years, you’re going to see some major milestones there. In fact, I was looking at … I think it was a IEEE article on an extruder, which was more towards the plant-based, the soy-based extruding something that would look like a steak.

Dirk:
We love extruded meat, Jon.

Jon:
I mean aside from that being slightly grotesque way to describe meat, they’re having a lot …

Dirk:
Is it any more grotesque than slaughtering the poor freaking animals though? I mean come on. What’s grotesque? What is grotesque? Is our definition of grotesque a reasonable one? I would say no. I would say the slaughtering of these poor, innocent animals is the more grotesque thing here.

Jon:
Yes.

Dirk:
Extrude away, baby.

Jon:
The advantage of whether or not you’re using the plant-based meats or if you’re using this cultured meat, you’re avoiding things like the toxicity of all these pesticides and run-off. Additionally, if you’re using antibiotics, say, in the production, traditional production of meat, you are basically increasing the possibility of creating super bugs, which is another massive hazard for humanity over time.

Dirk:
You can’t get salmonella from extruded meat, Jon. I guarantee you that.

Jon:
Yes, I wouldn’t think so. I think our verdict on the future dinner table, right, is that we are right now somewhat sold on the vegetable-based Impossible Foods and looking forward to the next stage when we can sit down and have a steak dinner and be at least partially fooled into thinking that we’re eating a steak, but it’s a funny thing because never in a million years would think that diet wold have to change in order to affect these environmental concerns that we discussed earlier in the program, but these types of changes, I think, are going to be important but also slightly unsettling. I can imagine the reaction of people who may not even like the idea of eating meat that’s not meat. I think there’s a lot to overcome there.

Dirk:
Well, that will be a transitional period. We’ll go from being uncomfortable with it to being squeamish and odd and transitioning to the point where’s it’s just normal, and it’s all anyone knows. I mean, and that’s the future. I mean I don’t know. I put 50 years on the first world no longer eating real meat that the combination of technology and focusing on the environmental laws developed to protect the environment, all the other factors, to me, it’s 50 years away, that we’re not eating real meat and the idea of eating real meat seems as repugnant to us than as smoking on airplanes seems to us now in our adult lives. Of course, smoking on airplanes at one point was a thing. You just took it for granted. Now, it’s like, “Holy cow. They did that at one point?” Aghast. That’s what eating meat will be like.

Dirk:
You know, beyond me, I mean I think it’s a really exciting moment for food technology in general. Another example that I want to talk about is there’s a product called Enlightened ice cream. I don’t know I this is one you’re familiar with or not. As I’ve gotten older, my metabolism has slowed down. My proportions have become increasingly generous, and a lot of that for me is I don’t eat giant meals or anything like that, but for me, going back to my childhood, my parents modeled this. There was some behavior dysfunction around it, but I have a large sweet every night at night. That’s like big calories on top of just eating like a normal person during the day. That has manifested most often in a pint of ice cream.

Dirk:
A pint of ice cream is over a thousand calories, right? Putting that on top of your day, that’s going to hurt. It’s not only going to hurt in terms of calories but certainly in terms of fat. There’s sugar. You’re just spiking these horrendous things in your body. This new product, Enlightened ice cream, what they’re doing is they’re replacing the sugar and fat with protein and fiber. The calories on the product are 40% what a pint of ice cream would be. Instead of sugar and fat, you’re getting protein and fiber. Things that are just bad are replaced by things that are actually good. This is a new find for me, but I think it could be something that ends up saving my life. It could be something that ends up extending my life significantly because it’s going to chop 6 to 800 calories a day out of my diet. I mean that’s incredible. It’s going to convert fat and these other bad things into better things like fiber, and it tastes good, right?

Dirk:
As someone who’s had a problem with sweets and ice cream for a long time, in the past, the stuff didn’t taste that good, and it wasn’t really better for you, really. They really jacked up the sugar to make up for the fact that they were cutting the fat, right? They’re light. It was kind of a sixth of one half dozen or the other, but now, you’ve got a product, and it’s a lot like the incredible meat where it’s not quite right. The texture’s really good, but it’s not quite right. The taste, Ben & Jerry’s or Enlightened, I’d rather have the Ben & Jerry’s, but it’s just a step or two behind. If it’s a step or two behind and it’s so much healthier, I mean that becomes a really good choice.

Dirk:
I think across a lot of product categories in food technology, we’re seeing a shift from traditional things like real beef, like normal ice cream that people have been eating for over a hundred years into things that are viable, truly viable replacements from the standpoint of product quality and health quality synthesizing together. I think that for me, what’s happening in food technology right now is among the most exciting things that are happening because I think it will impact our lives and our health in massive ways.

Dirk:
It will impact, in the case of meat in particular, the planet’s health in fantastic ways. Look, I mean as someone who eats meat but does it uneasily because I do have a real ethical problem with slaughtering animals for ourselves to eat meat, moving away from that and allowing animals to how ever many of them are going to continue to do so freely and not being just bread for the slaughter and for our pleasure and consumption. I think it’s just a good thing and is where human development needs to continue going for us to reach our full potential, for us to be as holistically healthy and good as individuals and as a society as we can be. I think food technology plays a huge role in pulling all of these things together. It’s something I’m very, very excited about and thrilled that companies like Impossible and Enlightened are out there and doing this. Rock on, brother.

Jon:
Yes. That sounds really good. I’ll have to take a look at Enlightened ice cream and see if it’s for me as well. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in the Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 262 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Kmemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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