The Hidden Goop in our Food

In science fiction, future food is often something else in disguise. Normal-looking burgers, cakes, or other foods are secretly moulded algae or vat-protein of some ilk, the idea being that we’ve run out of space or money to feed ourselves the usual way.

In reality, this mass-produced food filler is already here. And it’s not because we’ve outstripped our ability to grow or raise other sources of nutrition. It’s because it’s convenient and inexpensive for the people who make processed food. The same is true for the people who eat it, but it isn’t something we necessarily know we’re eating when we sit down to a microwave burrito.

There are a variety of food ingredients that could fall into this category, from gelatins to sausage meat slurries. One is probably familiar to most readers: in the last couple of years, there was a controversy about finely minced, disinfected beef scraps, which the US broadcaster ABC dubbed “pink slime”, in processed meat products. The stuff did not make people sick, although the decontamination process gave some the heebee-jeebees. The objection was in many ways an aesthetic one. (The online magazine Slate published an interesting history of the stuff and the inflammatory name, which provoked a lawsuit against ABC.) The product has made a comeback recently, though, in part because it is a very cheap and efficient way to make a meat product, and the droughts wracking American cattle country mean that beef prices are skyrocketing.

Another future food – one that’s wider spread yet perhaps less well-known – is made of soybeans. And this particular goop is impressive in its versatility.

After millennia of use in Asia, the soybean arrived late in the West. But by 1888, a French company was making bread for diabetics with soybean flour, thanks to the bean’s exceedingly low carbohydrate levels. More products followed, and in 1921, an Austrian inventor who took out a patent on making soy flour called it “manna for the hungry” in an article for the Times of London, citing its cheapness and nutritional value. During World War II, these same features made ground-up soybeans, camouflaged in other products, a frequent choice for food aid and rations. By the end of the war soybean goop was a booming business in the US (for these and more details on the history of soy, check out this ebook published by the Soyinfo Center.)

A big step towards the modern use of soy as a stand-in for something else can be traced to the 1960s, when food scientists came up with a way to make soy protein with a spongy texture. This process starts with ground-up soybeans that have had the oil and sometimes sugar and fibre removed. The resulting white powder is mixed in industrial machines with water or steam to make a kind of dough. The dough is then fed through an extruder, something you’re not likely to see in the average home kitchen but a real staple of processed foods. In these whirring engines of cookery the dough is forced through a tube at high pressure with just the right combination of moisture and heat so that it undergoes a chemical reaction, with the proteins in it unwinding and forming a kind of mesh. The rope of protein that emerges is sliced into rubbery nuggets than can stand in for meat in all kinds of food. (For this article I spent far too long mesmerised by videos of soy protein extruders on YouTube, many of them filmed byshaky-handed individuals in Asian factories, with romantic soundtracks.)

Now you can find soy protein in many products – not just veggie burgers and other forms of pseudo-meat, but also in ground beef, baked goods, energy bars, burrito fillings, salad dressing, pasta, whipped toppings, soups, and lunch meat. Soy protein doesn’t taste like much, so you can make it taste like almost anything. It can assume a good variety of textures, so you can make it look and feel like almost anything too, and like play dough, it is easily moulded by machines into a kaleidoscope of shapes.

From a nutritional perspective, it’s not a bad addition to ground beef and other meat products. It’s certainly lower in fat, and in terms of protein produced per acre, it makes better use of natural resources than livestock husbandry. Most importantly, from the manufacturer’s and potentially the consumer’s perspective, it is often very cheap compared to what it is replacing.

It really is the future food of science fiction. It’s not surprising that food manufacturers don’t like to tout this fact. The marketing slogan “just like the food people eat when they are trapped on spaceships!” doesn’t have a ring to it. Yet such foods and processes are now an integral part of the modern food industry. It’s something to think about the next time you bite into a burger or a cake.

Future of food

“Dunch”, Chris Sanderson explains, is the future. It’s lunch … but a long, drunken lunch, that rolls into dinner. It’s how 40 and 50-somethings, no longer willing to stay up till the wee small hours, will kick up their heels. Along with iPad wine lists, boozy brunches and Paleo Diet menus, it’s one way restaurants might keep current in a competitive world.

The UK-based company that Sanderson co-founded, The Future Laboratory, is in the business of looking at how we live now, and projecting from that how we’ll spend our money in the years ahead.

At a recent food and drink forum in Australia he offered this take away menu:

● We’re getting older. So food will need to be stocked on lower shelves, with bigger lettering on tags, in single servings, and with medicinal qualities. By 2015, boomers will control more than half the global grocery spend. And Sanderson cites a figure of 77 per cent of boomers choosing food and drink to boost their health.

● But we don’t want to have less fun. The “SKI” generation (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) are kicking up their heels like there’s no tomorrow (because they know, at their age, there mightn’t be one). Cashed up boomers and 40 and 50-somethings are living it up. Their catch-cries ”fomo” and ”yolo” (fear of missing out, you only live once) are giving rise to phenomena such as the “dunch” (long, drunken lunch) “which suits an ageing demographic. They’re quite happy to go home (drunk) at six in the evening, but don’t want to stay up until three in the morning”, Sanderson says. He adds baby boomers love food online, spending on experiences, and “if they buy a barbecue it’s going to be the most expensive in the range”.

● We’re going to want to eat and drink healthy. Salt, sugar, fat and obesity are being “put under the same microscope” as drugs and alcohol. Big brands will hop on the bandwagon, Sanderson says, pointing to Japan’s Suntory, famous for whisky and spirits, buying British beverage-makers Lucozade and Ribena in September last year. Expect to see more lower-alcohol and lower-kilojoule drinks and restaurant menus “become as specific as the back of labels on products, and more transparent” when it comes to revealing fat, salt and kilojoule counts of dishes, Sanderson says.

● We want our food to make us well. This might very well explain why the big four Japanese convenience-food makers have joined forces with pharmacies. Food will have medicinal qualities.

● We’ll get nostalgic about our dinner. Post-recession, Sanderson cites a boom in sales of sticky sponge puddings in Britain. Comfort food will help us keep it together. Punch and ”lawn drinks” will make a return, as evidenced by the Punch Room at Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel.

● There’ll be no more red wine with Coke. Discerning Chinese consumers are looking for “proof of quality when it comes to food and drink”. China’s emerging middle class will drive other demands too. Sanderson says: “They have an unquenchable thirst for premium alcoholic drinks.”

● Food will take over the locker room as well as the medicine cabinet. “Brands are reimagining food as sports and health supplements,” Sanderson says, as many of us take an aggressive line on diet and exercise, turning to things such as the 5:2 Diet (two days of virtual fasting); becoming vegan, alternating bingeing and purging, or taking to “caveman culture and the Paleo Diet”. We’ll see restaurants such M.O.B. in Paris, which does vegan fast food. And many of us will embrace fortified, synthetic and genetically modified foods that promise to enhance our performance.

● We’ll party like it’s 1999. The millennials (born circa 1980-2000) “are dominating the food and drink market”, Sanderson says. “They rank spending on food more highly than on electronics.” Really? They like eating more than their phones? Nearly half text about food, or use social media at the table when they eat out. They love craft beer, trying new cuisines, batch-produced drinks and conviviality when they eat out. The menu’s on an iPad? Even better.

● We’ll want to eat local. US snack food manufacturer Lays is identifying the field where their ingredients were grown, on every packet of chips, Sanderson says, predicting a “continued growth of localism”. “Companies will source more local ingredients and promote that,” he says.

● Franken-foods may be here to stay. The cronut may have started it, but culinary thrill-seekers will ensure hybrid snacks and cuisine mash-ups will follow in the footsteps of the ramen burger, the egg and bacon-filled breakfast doughnut, flavoured popcorn and foods such as Adriano Zumbo’s chouxmaca (half macaron, half choux puff). Super-savvy foodies seek ethnic fusion foods (Sanderson cites Cajun Italian), esoteric ingredients, and primitive experiences.

● Dumpster diving will be in. “More of us are questioning sell-by dates” Sanderson says, of a trend identified that sees more people looking to use ”waste” better. Dumpster diving will be acceptable, charities will work to redistribute unwanted food and businesses will cash in. Examples? The Espresso Mushroom company in England sells mushroom-growing kits that utilise coffee grounds, while Joost Bakker’s Silo in Melbourne’s CBD is aims to be a zero-waste cafe.

● We’ll want DIY food. We’ll tailor products as we want them, such as chocolate and muesli, with brands including Yoosli encouraging us.

● And we’ll all play with fire. Seeking more authentic, earthy food experiences will fuel grilling, flaming, smoking. Sanderson cites Swede Niklas Ekstedt, whose Stockholm restaurant eschews electricity for cooking over coals and fire.

● Tea will be the new coffee. Well, maybe we made that up, but Sanderson told his audience that cravings for no-alcohol and detox drinks would give the brew a boost. The influx of Asian cultures will drive new teahouses and a lust for rare teas. We might even see more hip, alcohol-free events or bars, such as London’s Redemption. Sanderson is also predicting a push-back against juices because of their high sugar levels.

● Hello, hipsters. Spirits will go all crafty, with inner-city distilleries using science to create interesting flavours.

● We’ll toss out wine tossers. Trying to woo younger, less interested drinkers to wine means it’s presented “in a way that puts consumers at ease and brings a new sense of informality”. Putting a list on iPads can deliver an 11 to 20 per cent increase in sales, Sanderson says. And sites such as Europe’s (motto: “wine that’s you”) will cater to this market.

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