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cover page by zim and zou - the future of food

The future of food

From AI-enabled gnocchi to lab-grown meat, here's how technology is hacking your dinner

Because we’re terrible at saying no to ourselves, technology is stepping in to play nanny to society’s deteriorating sense of self-control. Example one: in the next decade, we’ll see the release of a coin-sized computer implant that tells us when to stop eating. This technology is being developed by Swiss researchers and contains two genes that suppress the appetite depending on the fat levels in our blood. Prototype versions of the subdermal chip have proved effective in reducing the weight of obese mice – human testing will likely start in about three years.

But this is just the beginning of the end. As the festive season approaches, beloved traditions of human-made Christmas dinners and the subsequent pain of a New Year’s diet may soon become things of the past. The sentimentality that many of us associate with food may become outsourced to artificial intelligence, but only time will tell if this is for the betterment of mankind...

Never eat again with Soylent

Rob Rhineheart created his own food substitute paste, Soylent, out of sheer frustration over the time and energy spent on growing, transporting, and cooking food. Eating is a chore to some, and the effort that goes into preparing a healthy, respectable meal can be tedious. Earlier this year, Rhineheart successfully raised money to fund his baby, but like-minded efficiency enthusiasts aren’t waiting for Rhineheart to deliver – they’re making their own versions of Soylent. Sure, there are a couple of medical concerns – what’s actually in these food substitutes, or what about long-term sustainability? – but for the moment, this is a great time for people who eat to live rather than live to eat.

Make cheese from your tears

So if you’re really worried about chemical contaminants, maybe it’s time to start growing your own food using your body. A recent exhibition at Dublin gallery Selfmade offered a fascinating glimpse at using the human body to make bacterial cheese. Each cheese (including a wedge made from Olafur Eliasson's tears) reflects the unique biome it came from – that is, the human environment it was grown and cultured. Not only is fermented food good for the digestive system, but research has shown that it leads to improved immune systems and less emotional stress. Specific strains of bacteria such as Propinonibacterium (from the face) and Corynebacterium (from the underarms) can be cultured and used for yogurts, some types of sausages, and pickled vegetables. If you think this is disgusting, think of sourdough bread, which uses a yeasty bacterial flour; sourdough cultures actually help celiac patients with their gluten intolerance. Combine this with a self-composting table and we have all the makings of a fully self-sustainable eating system.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless palate

Scientists are developing chemicals that can erase memories. Combine that with food, and we have a recipe for convenient, self-induced amnesia. The University of Washington recently conducted a study to demonstrate the unreliability of human memory, quizzing test subjects about their underaged drinking experiences. One in five respondents falsely responded that alcohol had made them feel sick, paving the way for scientists to develop chemicals that could help individuals forget traumatic memories. Imagine a future where people could slip this kind of chemical into a meal – no, this isn’t rohypnol – giving life to a whole new breed of paranoia.

3D print your food

The idea of printing food isn’t new, but it’s becoming an increasingly viable method for anyone to make mass-produced, healthy edibles. Foodini is one prototype printer that uses piping technology (think icing) to blend six ingredients and produce food in preprogrammed shapes. So far, its tastiest output has been pastry-based eats like ravioli, cookies and breadsticks; parent company Natural Machines stresses that the machine assembles food rather than cooks it. Using one machine to produce a whole meal means that food prep itself can be outsourced to the point where one day, we can leave work and return home to a fully cooked dinner.

Connect your kitchen to the internet

A fully digitized, networked kitchen doesn’t seem attainable in this lifetime, but individual appliances are already being trotted out to give us a glimpse of the House of the Future. Chop-syc, an interactive touchscreen chopping board/weighing scale, is the brainchild of product designer Siobhan Andrews. It uses a wireless connection to weigh food, suggest recipes, and calculate ingredients – it can even make shopping list and place grocery orders for you. Following closely in the same vein as the appetite-suppression chip is the HAPIfork, a smart utensil that encourages slower eating and uploads your “progress” to a phone or computer.

Digital lollies

Tasting without eating seems like a concept straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but lickable wallpaper and its fantastical brethren may soon become a reality. Singapore-based researchers are working on a digital lollipop that simulates taste by zapping the tip of your tongue with electrical currents to form certain stimuli. “By manipulating the magnitude of current, frequency, and temperature - both heating and cooling… Salty, sour, and bitter sensations have been successfully generated,” said lead developer Dr. Nimesha Ranasinghe. Future uses of this tech include unprecedented ties with cooking shows on television – imagine tasting a Masterchef concoction as it is presented on-screen – as well as medical uses for diabetic patients.

Hack your food, hack the planet

Food hacking began as a blanket term to improve the taste of what’s on your plate, often at the expense of nutrition (yes, we’re talking about you, Taco Bell). This isn’t the case at San Francisco’s annual Future of Food Hackathon + Forum, which brings together food tech enthusiasts, venture capitalists, and other industry behemoths to talk about the future of healthy food, from soil to table. In a demonstration of how robotics can be used to monitor farms – a practice recently adopted by Oklahoma farmers – event organizers deployed flying drones to deliver snacks to attendees. But this isn’t just about hardware – it’s a platform to find solutions to genetically modified crops, poor diets, and the fact that busy people don’t have time to eat well. As urban populations increase and resource scarcity worsens, conferences like this will only skyrocket, offering the average consumer a better understanding of what they’re putting into their bodies.

Give your food a forever home

Bread and cheese may become immortal thanks to a new type of antimicrobial plastic packaging that prevents mould. Plastics giant Symphony Environmental and pharmaceutical company Janssen have developed a special kind of bag that uses chemicals to slow down the decomposition process…raising a whole new set of questions about exactly how safe these bags are for us.

Grow your meat in a lab 

This isn’t too far off from fictional pinktanks fresh out of a Rudy Rucker novel – lab-grown flesh, just for our consumption. In fact, the first lab-grown meat burger was devoured earlier this year. Engineering biological tissue means that we can continue eating "meat" with impunity without worrying about the environmental impact of livestock farming. Modern Meadow is one company to lead the way in this field by using tissue biopsies to extract flesh from living creatures and grow them en masse as meat surrogates. Not only does this address the horrific living conditions of our current livestock, it offers a long-term solution to the environmental impact of transporting and preserving food across long distances.

Space farming: the final frontier

There are several research entities already investigating the viability of “space farming,” including research into vertical garden designs and certain long-term crops that can be grown in harsh conditions. NASA’s ongoing VEGGIE (Vegetable Production System) program aims to develop a sustainable, regenerative food source in orbit, easing the cost of sending food to the ISS, and ultimately bringing us one step closer to healthy living in space. Last year, astronaut Don Pettit blogged about his quest to grow zucchini, broccoli, and sunflowers on the ISS, writing from the point of view of the plants.