Bull Session

The Future of Food

August 6, 2015          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we explore the future of food. There are few things more personal, more intimate, more important than what we put in our bodies every day. We’ll touch on a few areas at the intersections of food, science, and technology — from food as fuel where optimizing nutrition is key, to new food delivery technology like 3D printing, to the molecular gastronomy movement.

Impossible Foods
Foodini, the 3D food printer
The Bazaar by Jose Andres

Welcome to episode 115 of The Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Hidy-ho, Jon.

For our podcast topic this week, I think we should explore the future of food. There are few things that are more personal, intimate, or important than what we put in our bodies every day. Given the breadth and depth of this topic, I’m sure we’ll only get to touch on a few areas today on the intersection of food and science and technology, but I’d really like to start with the idea of food as fuel.

This is a growing trend, especially one that I notice in the design and engineering fields, it’s very popular. It’s where we’re trying to optimize just about everything. We’re also trying to optimize our food intake. There’s 1 product that, for example, that really takes this to the nth degree, which is called Soylent, which is unfortunately named after a science fiction product called Soylent Green that was a film in, I think, the ’70s. We’ll just not go into what goes into Soylent Green, but suffice it to say, Soylent is meant to be this all-in-one nutritious shake that very busy people, I’m assuming engineers and designers can be very busy, can just consume this a couple times a day and get all the nutrients that they need.

You can mix other things into it and it becomes your one-stop food item, so you don’t even really need to think about what you’re consuming. You can get back to coding or designing or gaming or whatever it is that you’re doing. Now there are so many other aspects of food besides it being fuel that this particular avenue for the future of food has never really enticed me. I really like too many things about eating to give up the presentation, the texture, the flavor, all of these items, and end up sucking a gray liquid through a straw. It’s just not really my thing. Dirk, have you ever even considered having an optimized food intake that’s more like a nutritious shake than a meal?

I did the green smoothie thing for a little while, so the answer is yes. I have considered that. I’ve even tried that sort of approach, at least for a proportion of the foods that I eat. Listen, for a long time, and I’m sure it goes back even farther than this, but for a long time in the United States, we had the food pyramid. The food pyramid was an early attempt to improve from a health and wellness perspective the way that we were eating, to try and give some guidance to people so that the totality of their intake was more healthful and more to their benefit.

Now, there were a couple problems with that. One, the food pyramid was broken. It was based to some degree on a financial aspect of there being a lot of grains, a lot of carbohydrate-based foods that were being produced that superficially people thought were healthy-ish, but generally weren’t. The food pyramid was taking us in the wrong direction to begin with, but even beyond that is that people to some large degree weren’t interested in it, and that comes back to issues of biology and psychology.

Biologically the foods that are produced in our culture are oftentimes optimized to create addictions or optimized to deliver to us ingredients that we will demand more and more of, and so that we spend money to create profits for those companies that produce them. They’re motivated by the profits, not by our health, and they are incentivized to make us addicted to things. They’ve certainly done so, and that’s for the most part really been unhealthy.

Then getting into the psychology of it, on the physical level, just I eat a candy bar and biologically I get good feelings from it and so I want more, but on a psychological aspect, going to both some of the marketing again from these companies who are manipulating us biologically, they’re manipulating us psychologically as well, but also from the standpoint of being a very wealthy nation on one hand but also one with very stratified levels of society on the other, is that food has come to carry a real psychological weight and power and importance for us on both macro levels of certain foods and certain ways of eating identifying success, identifying confidence, identifying positive characteristics so that we’re pursuing those foods for our own sense of identity in a lot of ways among others.

I don’t want to go too far into this without giving you a chance to respond, but this Soylent, as sort of the most extreme example, and I think there’s even more extreme examples now although Soylent was one of the pioneers of this space, they’re going completely in the opposite direction and saying, “Look it, don’t let these companies continue to manipulate your biology and your psychology with a lot of crap that’s actually really bad for you. Let’s distill this down to something that’s healthy for you and that is going to save you some money. It’s going to save you … probably make your life longer compared to eating other things.”

As a mechanism of taking our society that is asleep and the unwitting, ongoing victim of these corporate interests of manipulating what we’re doing to ourselves, it’s good that we have these things that are trying to reframe the issue. In the long term, of course, it needs to be a balance. It needs to be where in general we are eating in ways that are healthful, positive, productive, and it is also appropriate and healthy ways for food to be something that is a joy and something that really enhances the aesthetics of our life.

As always, humans follow this pendulum, racing from one extreme to another. The horrendous sugar, fat, salt laden foods that we’ve been getting from our capitalist culture for many decades are one horrible extreme on this pendulum, and another probably suboptimal extreme on the pendulum are things like Soylent. Eventually we’ll get to the middle. That probably will just be decades, not years, before that’s fully realized.

Yeah, that’s a good breakdown of the food industrial complex that we’ve got going in our country. I think one of the books that I read on that, I believe it was called Fast Food Nation, was quite an expose, just about the modern food industry and how it’s more or less been created much as you described to be this entity that sucks money out of people to their detriment of their health. I think there’s an interesting turn that’s happening in terms of food and science coming together in our modern era where we are trying to get certain benefits out of food that are slightly different dependent on the type of food you’re consuming.

I’ll give you an example. I’m very much an avid coffee drinker, so that particular liquid for me is not just about waking up. It’s about the whole experience, but also trying to derive a little bit of mental focus at the beginning of the day. Into this realm of consumption comes all kinds of crazy concoctions, whether you’re talking about your sodas and Mountain Dew, or your Red Bull from the energy drink side of it.

I noticed in our studio a couple weeks ago, I think, one of our guys had this product called truBrain, which apparently was designed by some neuroscientists to give the optimal dose of nutrients so that if you have your midday drowsiness, you could go and suck down a can or a container of truBrain, and it will give you certain nutrients so you can be focused for the rest of the day. It’s very much in the same lines as Soylent, which is it’s almost as if we’re injecting ourselves with certain substances, almost like we’re race cars and we need a certain amount of energy to keep moving and to be productive.

Frankly, those products all have that same negative connotation for me, in that it’s not really a food experience anymore. It feels more like medication and fuel without any of the pleasures of the food. On the other side of the coin, and I did want to build on this point that you made regarding all of the industrial food production that we have in the United States, we see a counter-narrative being created by sustainable food movements. It’s interesting to me. You didn’t mention beef and burgers and steaks as the status symbols of a certain kind of eating, but I think you hinted at that in your description.

I’ve noticed that in this counter-narrative, there are certain vegetable-based or plant-based alternatives which ironically are picking shapes to mimic beef. You’re taking this plant-based food and you’re making the equivalent of burgers out of it, and some do that more successfully than others. There’s a company called Impossible Foods that claims to have created a very compelling plant-based burger that’s going to be the next generation of this. Dirk, what do you make of that from a psychological perspective that we’re … We have all these desires to have healthy eating, but at the same time, we can’t let go of the animal protein part of it. I think there’s an interesting psychology to that.

On the animal protein side, I think that tastes good. I spent a year as a vegetarian when I was in graduate school. It was broken … Ultimately it was broken not because I had to have the meat, but because I had little children and I just found it increasingly difficult to maintain at that time in the 1990s the vegetarian lifestyle in that context and with a busy life. Once I got back into the meat, boy, I sure did like it. I was like, “Jeez Louise, this is pretty nice and I don’t think I’m going to be going back anytime soon.” I’m really excited about the potential for meat replacement.

At a certain level, evolutionarily speaking, the future better manifestation of humanity as a species is one that does not kill and torture, and it is torturous the way we treat them, other creatures for provision of our sustenance, particularly when that sustenance is essentially just for the luxury of enjoying something that tastes better. Even now as I continue to eat meat, I am disturbed by the fact that I am eating and having that pleasure of doing so at the expense of another life form that is suffering in ways that I consider abhorrent. I think it’s extremely exciting that we can get to the point where there’s no reason, no excuse, to be eating real meat, that we have something different.

Going back to your mentioning of the product truBrain, that really is getting at an important psychological thing, namely very focused and intentional eating. What I mean by that is one of the failings of the food pyramid or the general “I’ll eat these things to be more healthy” is that it’s hard for people to really wrap their heads around and to make trade-offs in the moment, because the be more healthy thing is so abstract and it’s so out in the future. What does to be more healthy mean? That’s going to matter in my 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. It’s going to matter at some point n years or decades out into the future.

While there’s times you’re like, “Hey, I’m going to eat my vegetables. I’m going to eat more healthy,” it’s really difficult to, especially in the environment we’re in now, with corporate interests driving us to things that are more superficially enjoyable in the moment. It’s really tough to get on board and make big lifestyle changes, but if we can start to look at eating as having a direct relationship to living, then it becomes really interesting. Then you say, “Okay …”

For an extreme example, like I’ve got my SAT test today, so I’m going to take truBrain because I want the thing that’s going to make my brain the best. To take a totally different example, if you have a night of lovemaking planned, you say, “I’m going to take truStud,” because that’s going to really … That’s the right food for the right thing, basically. I think there’s a real future there in, not, again … Soylent again is sort of this generic thing.

I think the future is in meals, is in food choices, that are really optimized around specific behaviors and tasks, and they’re balancing being as perfect for the task as possible but with the enjoyment, the aesthetic aspects. Again, the whole Soylent strategy, it’s just an extreme move. It definitely makes improvements in some ways, but certainly fails in some others. I think that it’s the more focused, task-based approach to eating choices that will eventually win the day, albeit probably a ways down the road.

Yeah, I think … I want to pick up on that and talk a little bit about how we get food delivered, because I think there’s a lot of tremendously interesting things happening in that sphere as well, and sort of speaks to your highlighting the optimal meal for the optimal approach to what you’re doing.

On the food delivery side, I’m particularly fascinated by the 3D printing of food. You may have an idea of what you want to eat and you have the ingredients inside of capsules. Now you can get the right meal at the right time and then presumably have it pre-proportioned so you can have the exact amount and then it’s printed out for you and delivered in that fashion, so the ingredients are fresh and so you’re getting exactly the amount you need without this horrible waste which happens all the time inadvertently when you’re talking about delivering food to the grocery store, and then from the grocery store to home, and then you forgot that you had a bunch of meat in the food bin somewhere in your fridge, and you forget about it. You end up throwing out like $10 worth every week because you forget what’s in there.

This is a really highly optimized delivery system and it’s sort of in its nascent stages. I was looking at one 3D food printer called Foodini, which is in development and is scheduled to be shipping in 2015. It seems to me like there’s a lot of promise in making the delivery system that much more tailored to what people need at the moment. Dirk, what are your thoughts on the 3D printing of food?

We’ll see. We’ll see about the 3D printing of food. Another macro issue, of course, is global warming and the environmental challenges from burning fossil fuels. A century from now, we will no longer have trucks driving from 1 state to the next, 1 destination to the next, planes flying with food. As long as those type of vehicles are burning fossil fuels to accomplish those trips, either there’s going to be a massive change in technology that enables transportation of goods that aren’t really required, that are really surplus and luxury for the most part, that enables them to be transferred, traveled around for our whim, so we can have … I’ll order things I like.

I like Shark brand sriracha from Southeast Asia. I like Arizona Gunslinger hot sauce from Arizona. I like Alaskan wild salmon. There’s going to have to be a massive change in how vehicles are powered for us to continue having those kind of foods. Will that be realized or not? I don’t know. I’m not enough of an expert in power. The fact that we don’t see anything certainly isn’t a good sign after a century of burning the hell out of oil and even longer than that if we’re thinking about the burning of coal which preceded it.

There could be these other macro things that are forcing us down a path of 3D printed food, that it needs to be something akin to astronaut ice cream as opposed to akin to the real solid foods that we have today. What does that look like? I don’t know. I think the main determining factor is going to be, are we able to transport luxury goods hither and thither as we do today? That’s going to be a question of power generation and who knows, who knows.

Yeah, I think there’s so much happening on this forefront. Obviously we can only spend a little bit of time on it, but the last technology I wanted to raise is part of the molecular gastronomy movement, which really I think begat some of this interest in the technology and food industries coming together. I had a very interesting meal in Los Angeles a couple of years ago at The Bazaar, which is headed by Chef Jose Andres. I’m sure I didn’t get that name right, but …

No, you did. I’ve eaten at one of his restaurants in Vegas as well. Keep going. Keep going.

There’s this very future forward look to the food they present there where food is liquefied and the experience is very postmodern insofar as all of the dishes that I tried came out and they were like series of these little capsules basically of liquids that tasted exactly like they were described, whether it’s some veal reduction or some fancy coconut dessert, but they’re all in these little balls that are presented in unique ways. I don’t know if molecular gastronomy and this derivation of taking food to the nth degree where it becomes more of a science experiment than the kinds of cooking that we’re used to, but just the presentation of that made me feel as if I was eating food from the future. Dirk, when you ate at the restaurant in Vegas, did you get the same impression or am I crazy?

No, no. It’s one of those things. How I’m going to answer this is going to sort of bring it full circle. It was one of those things where I came out, I said, “You know, it tasted kind of good and it was super interesting and stimulating,” but if I could go back and have this meal or something else, I said, “Boy, I would probably spend $700 for 2 people or whatever asinine total the bill was, I would like to have a nice juicy steak and a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is as old school as it gets.

Yeah, I mean, they haven’t figured it out yet. They’re not there. The whole … the price point for preparation and the total quality of the experience, when you’re considering taste and end satisfaction of the diner, it’s got a long way to go, but it’s certainly interesting and certainly seems to offer 1 possible future of food, but who knows what that will really end up looking like.

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 1 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 afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. 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. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me, dirk@goinvo.com.

That’s it for episode 115 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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