Strange Foods of the Future: The Planet Can Stomach Them, But Can You?

These unusual delicacies could become the staple foods of the future

Samples of cultured meat grown in a laboratory are seen at the University of Maastricht on November 9, 2011. Scientists are cooking up new ways of sustainably feeding the world's hunger for resource-intensive foods like meat products. FRANCOIS LENOIR/Reuters/Corbis

Twenty-first century people don't eat exactly like our grandparents did. Thankfully, those carrot- and even tuna-filled JELL-O molds are largely a thing of the past. But it's probably a good idea to prepare your palate for some changes, because the foods of the future may take some getting used to.

By the year 2050, Earth will be home to nine billion people, and their appetites present a growing economic and environmental challenge. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates it will take 60 percent more food to nourish all those people. Producing it will require similar spikes in the use of energy and water.

Boosting the efficiency of farms can be part of the solution. But the future of food will likely require thinking outside the box and opening our minds and mouths to new, more sustainable menu items.

While some of these delicacies are available now, they're far from typical fare, and they come with plenty of caveats. Will we be able to stomach these futuristic foods? No matter how good they are for the planet, their popularity is going to depend on how they taste.

“You'd like people to eat lower on the food chain, but we have to be realistic,” says Princeton University's Tim Searchinger, lead author of the World Resources Institute's Creating a Sustainable Food Future.  “Generally nagging people is not going to be enough.”  

Swallowing A Bug and Enjoying It

Forward-looking foodies have long eyed the world's insect populations as a cheap source of inexhaustible protein that can be farmed on far less water and feed than cows or chickens. The FAO recently produced a report on edible insects, which notes that they're already eaten by some two billion people worldwide, and they represent a promising protein source for fighting hunger in the developing world. Now insects are being spiffed up to appeal to Western markets. A snack pack of organic, smoky BBQ crickets, for example, will likely make your kid the talk of the lunchroom.

Crunchy, whole crickets may not appeal to everyone. But bugs could be more palatable when made into familiar foods—hence the launch of Chirps snack chips. The crunchy chips are made from cricket flour, which is also being marketed as a baking blend for early adapters of an insect-rich diet. Of course, any animals raised for food, even insects, must themselves eat something. That makes bugs less efficient fare than most vegetable matter—unless they're raised on organic side-streams like animal or even human waste, a possibility noted by the FAO. Cricket cookies, anyone?

Schmeat: It's What's For Dinner

In terms of diet and the environment, Searchinger says, the big issue is meat. “Beef is particularly inefficient,” he adds. “Basically there's beef, and then there's everything else.” And while demand for meat has leveled off in the developed world, it has been steadly climbing in developing and emerging economies since the mid-1990s. Since those nations also have rising populations, a path to more sustainable meat production is a key part of the future food chain.

But what if you could enjoy the taste of a real beef burger without the massive environmental impact that goes into raising a cow? Then you'd be eating “schmeat,” beef grown in a lab rather than a pasture. So what exactly is it?

Making schmeat begins with removing stem cells from a real cow—the same cells that produce muscle tissue to repair damage in the living animal. In the lab, as pictured above in a photo taken in November 2011, they can be made to multiply and produce tissue, and eventually an edible meat product, with no cow body to sustain.

The process isn't easy or cheap—the first test burger unveiled by in vitro meat pioneer Mark Post cost over $330,000 to produce. But scientists hope that technological improvements and ramped-up scale over the next few years can bring the costs down dramatically and make the “frankenburger” commercially viable.

The linger question, then is whether consumers would regularly eat meat from a petri dish. An that likely depends on how it tastes, which is a work in progress but not entirely off the mark, according to the handful of people who sampled that first precious burger. “The absence, I feel, is the fat,” reported food writer Josh Schonwald at the burger's unveiling in 2013. “But the bite feels like a conventional hamburger.” 

Slime From the Sea

Could spirulina become a household word? It already has, at least in some number of nutritionally minded homes. The blue-green algae have recently gained renown as a health supplement that's sold in pills or powders and incorporated into smoothies, such as the cucumber, avocado and spirulina smoothie pictured above, and juices like Naked's Green Machine.

Not only are producers not hiding the fact that consumers are drinking slimy green sea stuff—they are increasingly trumpeting the ingredient for its high protein and iron content. But the biggest edible advantage for algae could be in fueling the farmed fish industry, which, with emptying oceans, may have to provide all future growth in seafood consumption, Searchinger notes.

“For aquaculture, we very badly need something that is the biological equivalent of fish oil,” he says. “Ultimately the oil that you get in grinding up small fish for feed isn't produced by those fish but by algae they eat. So if you can get it directly from the algae, that would be really beneficial.” The main barrier to that so far is the challenge of farming large quantities of usable algae at competitive cost.

Since many consumers already eat farmed fish with little thought of what they're raised on, algae used in this way likely won't cause many to turn up their noses at their dinner's slimy source.  

Golden Rice, Giant Controversy

The shape and form of future food is most critical for people living on the margins and struggling to get the sustenance they need to survive. Enter genetic engineering, which has the potential to boost the nutritional value (and crop yield) of cheap staple foods—but also faces enough global opposition to make "GMO" a dirty word.

No crop exemplifies the debate over GMO foods quite like golden rice, some two decades in the making but still not common in commercial use. The rice's namesake color comes from beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A, courtesy of maize genes. Millions of Africans and Asians don't get adequate amounts of this vitamin and suffer ills from blindness to death as a result.

The rice, pictured above at left, was engineered to help the poor by providing this essential nutrient. A single bowl can deliver 60 percent of a child's daily vitamin A requirement. Proponents lament the countless lives that might have already been saved, had golden rice been distributed years ago.

But opponents of such crops fear they'll contaminate other plantings and could spread widely with little hope of control. Though golden rice varieties are being developed on a non-profit basis, opponents also fear GMO technology will lead to corporate crop control and higher prices. Much of the opposition is based on rejection of all GMO products, which was presumably the case with vandals who destroyed a Philippine government test field in 2013.

Tasters report that the rice is perfectly palatable. But it remains unclear how its GMO origins or even its unusual color might impact the biggest unknown of all—will people want to eat golden rice?  

The End of Food?

What if the future of food wasn't a food at all but a more efficient and inexpensive way to get the nutrients our bodies really need? That's the idea behind Soylent, a liquid cocktail of soy protein, algal oil, a natural sugar substitute synthesized from beets, vitamins and minerals that contains all the nutrients its inventors deemed essential for human health.

“I hypothesized that the body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains,” wrote Rob Rhinehart in his 2013 Soylent manifesto, How I Stopped Eating Food. “What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier, or do we need all the other stuff that’s in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet? I just want to be in good health and spend as little time and money on food as possible."

That experiment has become a commercial product, backed by more than $20 million in venture capital funds and available now in the U.S. and Canada. The product boasts some clear sustainable efficiencies by eliminating nearly all the effort and energy required to turn the raw building blocks of nutrition into actual food. At $3 a serving, the price is likely too steep at present for wide distribution outside the developed world, but Rhinehart hopes that process improvements and economies of scale will soon make Soylent a more viable option for fighting hunger.

Fans of the futuristic 1973 Charlton Heston classic Soylent Green take heart. Though the product's name is a nod to the film, this version isn't made of the same terrifying ingredient—we may be eating some strange foods in the future, but we're not going to be on the menu ourselves. 

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