The future of food—it’s bite-fi!

Published November 14, 2021, 6:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

EAT’S LIKE 2050 The blue food scene from Star Trek

My first taste of futuristic cuisine was from sci-fi movies—The Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, say, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the blue Bantha milk in Star Wars.

Often, eating in the future isn’t such an appetizing experience. Prompted by my own sci-fi preferences, which are mostly dystopian, my typical futuristic repast is a dish whipped up or rammed down the throat in a broken-down world, the portable noodle bar in Blade Runner, for example, or desperately growing potatoes in a spaceship in The Martian or the “bowl of snot” in The Matrix or—ugh—the cannibalistic food substitute in Soylent Green!

Nobody seems to have a good meal in the future, as futuristic films tend to portray people there as too busy battling aliens, hurtling through space, or re-establishing the balance between good and evil in the universe.

I’m such a late bloomer at the dinner table, so there was a time I thought that eating, more like chewing, was a chore, and I would fantasize about such things as a meal-in-a-pill, again a sci-fi influence, though it must have also been brought about by an article I read in Time magazine many years ago in which I was made aware that sometimes more dangerous to health than hunger was a hearty appetite, the culprit for much of aging, diseases, memory loss…

Despite its obsession with dystopia, science fiction has not been far off the mark in its depiction of the future of cooking and eating. In fact, the future, as some of our sci-fi breakthroughs have predicted, is now and we’re helping ourselves to it.

Soylent, for example, is now reality. Not to worry, while it was cannibalism in the Charleston Heston-starrer Soylent Green loosely based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, it is in the here and now a response of a group of engineers to the lack of time and money that we have for cooking, preparing, or even eating healthy food. What has been designed is Soylent, a meal replacement drink, which describes itself as complete nutrition, science-backed and sustainable, “a nutritious meal that is as easy as it is delicious.”  

Investing in the science of food is truly an investment in our future. —Tony Robbins

Plus there’s 3D printing technology, which the global food industry has begun to adopt to make food production increasingly efficient and sustainable, not to mention possible, especially where fresh ingredients are inaccessible or unaffordable. It’s a revolution waiting to happen, worthy of the replicator in Star Trek, which somehow sums up what it does as it is now applied in molecular kitchens and fancy bakeries. With the use of a food-grade syringe or cartridge, nozzles, lasers, and some viscous material like paste, purees, mashes, or doughs, even raw meats, this technology can produce food. Anything is possible, like ready-to-bake pizza, spinach in the shape of dinosaurs, chocolate in the design of a snowflake, goat cheese-stuffed ravioli, or bagoong as air. It’s the new frontier in the manufacture of food, foretold by The Jetsons half a century ago, but it’s happening, growing by leaps and bounds from its current infancy. You can now buy 3D Chocolate Home Printer for under $200 in Europe.

There’s no denying that science is at the 21st-century table and we’re seeing a lot of it in molecular gastronomy, in which the physical, biological, and chemical processes, mechanisms, and interactions that arise in food when we cook it have been explored, experimented with, and then manipulated to deliver flavorful, functional, and artistic yields.

MAGIC MACHINE A 3D food printer in the process of creating marzipan model of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (Picture Alliance)

The science has been around since the time of Nickolas Kurti (1908-1998), the physicist in the kitchen, and Hervé This (born 1955), the chemist in the kitchen, who together fathered molecular gastronomy, but using what they started, today’s modernist chefs have turned the kitchen into a science lab. From sous vide and deconstruction to emulsification, flash freezing, dehydration, and smoking, there are many techniques in molecular gastronomy that now allow us to enjoy such things as White Russian Krispies, transparent ravioli, broiled mussels with chive foam, gelatin caviar, and Molecular Mojito Sphere served in a slotted spoon, not in a glass.

I don’t know that there are limits to culinary explorations just as I don’t know that there are limits to the universe, but as far as the future of food goes, it looks like we are heading there at 20 years per minute, with insect burgers and falafels made of bugs, ribeye steak for the herbivore, and in-vitro meat on our menu of possibilities. What’s next could be a kettle meal of couscous simply boiled in water drawn from Pluto’s ice volcanoes, who knows?

If only food as medicine went at the same dizzying rate toward flavor and not just toward efficacy in battling diseases, or even aging, and keeping us in tiptop shape with every bite and mouthful. My dream of the future is one where we will need to refrain from taking too much of our bio-engineered carbs or sugars or oils or fats, which may be medicinal as much as they may be delightful, because at some point we will need to die.