It was while sneaking one of my guilty pleasure foods, a small bag of Cool Ranch Doritios, that I read this article in the New York Times “Rethinking Eating” by Kate Murphy in which she reports that Silicon Valley is getting into the food business. Well, the sustenance business anyway. I’m not sure food is the goal in any of the cultural, social, or personal connotative senses of that word. But technologists getting into the sustenance game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, applying algorithmic genius to the task of creating nutritional, and maybe experiential, substitutes for animal protein based foods. Certainly, your vegetarian friends will remind you that animal-protein foods come with myriad downsides, ranging from environmental impact to cruel treatment of the animals themselves to any number of potential health hazards for the eater. At the same time, too much of the still-growing world population remains hungry, and so it is not inconceivable that computer scientists mucking about in the world of algae and protein could be the legacy of Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for inventing the hybrid “dwarf wheat,” credited with saving a billion lives.
As Murphy reports, “Instead of the go-to ingredients previously used in animal protein substitutes — soy, wheat gluten, vegetable starches — Food 2.0 companies are using computer algorithms to analyze hundreds of thousands of plant species to find out what compounds can be stripped out and recombined to create what they say are more delicious and sustainable sources of protein.” No question, it’s an interesting area of research, and in all likelihood, this experimentation will yield some benefit the scientists aren’t even seeking. Isn’t that part of the fun of science?
On the other hand, food scientists still trying to understand Food 1.0 have only just begun to seriously explore the microbial biodiversity of the human gut. It is understood, for instance, that the innards of typical Western citizens are home to a more homogenous microbiome than they likely were in the past, while societies still living and eating more “primitively” show signs of a greater diversity of microbes. How exactly certain microbes benefit humans — and thus how their absence may be harmful — is still science in its infancy, but researchers theorize that an increase in certain diseases in the developed world may be manifestations of our unwittingly killing off symbiotic species of bacteria and the like. And since research in this area is so new, I’m going to assume that the algorithms being tested in Food 2.0 labs cannot account for these myriad chemical interactions between man and his meat, as it were.
At a glance, the efforts of these food tech entrepreneurs appear contrary to contemporary trends in culinary wisdom, which seeks food sources unsullied by mass production processes that often strip the very elements our bodies need in the first place. While gut biodiversity science is still nascent, the general consensus among the food conscious is to follow the wisdom of experts like Michael Pollan who advises (if I may paraphrase), “Eat food and enough of it, and don’t eat that which is not food.” (My Cool Ranch Doritios definitely belong in the “not food” category.) In short, we don’t necessarily need to know what every microbe does so much as we understand generally that we need to consume a fairly broad range of foods that are not over-sanitized because different symbiotic microbes thrive on different elements in the diet. This is why the Western diet that is a bit too protein and sugar-rich has sustained certain microbes and killed off others.
And of course nobody needs me to tell them that, at its best, food feeds the soul, which may be much harder to factor into any equation than the probable influence of a single microbe. So, it will certainly be interesting to see what comes from this new line of R&D, but historically, technology has a way of tasting like technology. Anyone who has ever eaten a grocery-store tomato alongside a farm-stand tomato knows what I mean. If this research leads to solutions that address world hunger and/or environmental and health hazards associated with current food production models, bring it on. But if it’s a bunch of guys developing yet another way to treat food like a necessary evil that gets in the way of work or some other activity, that may not be progress for the human experience.
We like what appear to be ready solutions — like eCigarettes, which are so far unregulated on the assumption that they’re safe and are, therefore, being marketed to kids with sugary flavors like snicker doodle (yeah, I was surprised by that myself). So, perhaps these food tech guys are onto something, but they certainly appear to be investing in the opposite proposal that suggest maybe we just stop poisoning the apples and eat the damn apples.