Friday, December 9, 2016

Advancements in food technology: Would you be willing to eat your own poop or 3D printed insects?

Technology is advancing, from cryonics to self-conscious robots. Even the food sector cannot escape. In the wake of prophesized doom scenarios of future food shortages, scientists, artists and chefs are exploring alternative means of producing sustainable and healthy foods. But would you substitute your strawberry daiquiri for a, literally, bloody Mary?

The Nordic Food Lab's ceviche recipe made with bee larvae (The Nordic Food Lab)

Current forecasts predict that with the rising temperature and subsequent water shortages, our unsustainable food system will be unable to meet the rise in food demand from an increasing world population, and severe food shortages will make our food environment collapse by 2040 (The Independent). When you imagine more sustainable ways of producing food you probably think of switching to green energy, eating less meat, or reducing the amount of waste we produce. But what evolves much quicker than human’s willingness to change the status quo? Technological innovation. Although not yet available on the shelves we browse on a daily basis, food engineers, scientists and chefs are developing creative and bizarre innovations in food manufacturing.

Algae instead of meat and blood instead of egg?

One of these initiatives started in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2008, when two entrepreneurial chefs began experimenting with food in a boat they called the Nordic Food Lab. Years later and now based at the University of Copenhagen, the experimenters argue that in order to improve food sustainability and eat as healthily as possible, the food environment and our relationship with food need to be “sanitized”. We should start considering alternative protein-rich products such as insects, organs or fungi as alternatives to our current food sources. They go as far as to suggest the recycling of our faeces to reuse the undigested energy, nutrients and healthy gut bacteria (Josh Evans for Munchies Vice).

Blood and egg share many similar properties (The Nordic Food Lab)

“Honey, I’m home!” “Give me 5 minutes, I’m printing a pizza.”

A different line of research is experimenting with the printing of foods. Just as any paper or plastic object that is printed, food printing consists of layering substances into the desired product or using laser technology to create shapes out of powders or liquids (see this link for examples). Although most 3D printed foods are only present in gastronomical hotspots (such as the traveling 3D printing restaurant Food Ink) it is already beneficial to the elderly suffering from difficulties with mastication or swallowing. Pureed ingredients can be printed in any shape to make pureed foods look more attractive but still equally easy to chew.

Performance's pureed foods

There are two main advantages of food printing. The first is the ability to individually tailor foods to contain the desired amount of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Ensuring that everyone ingests a personalized amount of calories and nutrients could help people more easily maintain weight and improve health. The second advantage is that as the “ink” used consists of capsules filled with powders or oils, alternative sources of nutrients can be explored. 

Food printing also has many disadvantages such as being expensive and time-consuming. However, technology is rapidly advancing and Foodini 3D food printers are expected to be available to consumers in 2017 for a cost of 1300 US dollars. Such printers would work with recipes send by your computer, potentially diminishing the time burden of preparing a meal yourself (All3DP).

Let’s indulge without getting fat or drunk

Yet another different line of research is taking advantage of the progress achieved in virtual reality. If we can simulate being another person, it shouldn’t be too hard to simulate eating, an act that consists of much more than ingesting, swallowing and digesting food. A large part of eating pleasure consists of enjoying the smell of food and touching it with our hands, mouth or tongue. All of these sensations can be simulated as a virtual experience. Project Nourished currently offers a range of futuristic-looking objects such as a headset to simulate vision, an aromatic diffuser that produces smell, and a bone-conduction transducer that mimics chewing sounds and vibrations. They can imitate the experience of dining in a fine restaurant through goggles and even trick the brain into thinking it is intoxicated. 

These technologies can be applied to a wide range of situations in which virtual experiences can improve problematic relationships with food. For instance, children who dislike vegetables and anorexics who are afraid of calories can be trained in a pleasant and fun way. Moreover, people who can no longer chew, have allergies, or should not eat that many calories, can indulge in anything they would like to eat. Virtual reality allows one to enjoy the pleasure of food by chewing on hydrocolloids—naturally derived, low-calorie substances like agar and pectin that can take on a variety of textures” (Food and Wine). It can also artificially enlarge the size of a food such that we feel satiated after eating a smaller quantity of food than usual, and can even change our taste perception of a food by changing it’s look and smell (Simon Klose for Munchies Vice).

The look and smell of a cookie changes our taste perception (Munchies Vice).

Although all of these initiatives are promising ways in which food and health experts as well as designers and artists plan to improve the current unsustainable and unhealthy food environment, many put forth the criticism that eating habits are so ingrained in us that many of us will not gladly give up their steak for a bowl of crunchy grasshoppers. Blood and faeces activate an automatic disgust response in us that could make it impossible to consume them in their natural states. Moreover, others argue that 3D printing and tailoring the nutrient content of foods produces artificial foods, reminding people of genetically engineered organisms.

However, what if we combine all of these technologies to produce a healthier food supply system and improve our eating habits? Instead of feeding people worms or bloody hearts, we could subtract their compounds and print them into more visually pleasing shapes, or create virtual reality experiences in which people are trained to associate unknown or unusual food substances with tastiness or pleasure. These food productions are not more artificial than the highly processed foods we ingest now, filled with sugar substitutes, antibiotics and preservatives. Moreover, 3D printed objects could be combined with the insertion of live organisms to create fresh foods that can be grown in the consumer’s own home (see for instance Chloé Rutzerveld's edible growth project).

What all of these initiatives have in common is to bring food production and consumption closer to home. By obtaining food resources from our own printer or actual bodies we can reduce the environmental and economic impact of food transportation and exportation, generate less waste and have healthier diets. “The only truly responsible course of action is to take our diets fully into our own hands and directly out of our rectums (Josh Evans for Munchies Vice).” Until then, we can sit back and enjoy a beer made from Amsterdam’s rainwater or a gin distilled from weeds harvested in the city of Gent

Gander, Kashmira. (2016, November 30). The Nordic Food Lab wants you to eat blood, insects and brains to save the world. Retrieved from

Botero-Murphy, Bianca. (2016, January 28). Can 3D printing helps us to eat healthier? Retrieved from

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