Is This Your Future Dinner?
Can we feed the world the nutrients it needs and save the planet? Scientists say yes—but only if you change what’s on your plate. (Yes, bugs are on the menu!)
When Laura D’Asaro opened the oven, the scene resembled a science fiction movie: Grub-like larvae crawled out from her cookies, like the first stages of an all-out waxworm invasion.
Except Laura and her college roommate, Rose Wang, had actually put the worms in their dough—just one small experiment in their ongoing mission to make insects appetizing. (What they learned that day: You’ve got to first freeze the bugs to kill them, so that the resilient critters don’t survive the baking stage.)
Why on Earth would these friends be messing around with creepy-crawly cookies? “About 80 percent of the world already eats insects,” says Laura, now 25, who first sampled a fried caterpillar while studying abroad in the East Africa nation of Tanzania. “Our big vision is for you to be able to walk into a restaurant someday and order an insect burger, just like you would order one made of chicken or beef.”
While they’re not quite there yet, Laura and Rose have come a long way since that failed cookie recipe. In fact, the two friends are now the co-founders of Six Foods, a company that makes tortilla chips using ground cricket flour.
But for these young women, it’s not just a business. With their cleverly named “Chirps,” they have joined an army of food futurists worldwide—nutritionists, scientists, chefs, and inventors who say we’re in danger of depleting the natural resources we need to sustain our current diet.
They’re all working tirelessly to figure out what new foods are tasty and nutritious enough to save humankind.
To fully grasp Laura and Rose’s passion for pests, you first have to understand our world’s impending population problem. According to the United Nations, the number of humans living on our planet is projected to explode in coming years, reaching a whopping 9.7 billion by 2050. Feeding those 2.4 billion extra mouths—the equivalent of an extra China and India!—will require a 70 percent increase in our food supply.
“We’re all looking for ways to maximize food production while making sure that we deliver adequate protein, vitamins, and minerals,” explains nutritionist Marianne Smith Edge of the International Food Information Council Foundation, an organization that tracks food trends and educates consumers.
But there’s another piece to solving the population-boom puzzle, and that involves achieving something called sustainability (see chart on pg. 12): How can we amp up the supply of nutrition-rich foods without destroying our environment?
Right now, producing our protein-packed staples, like poultry and cattle, takes a tremendous amount of water, land, and energy—largely because raising animals also means growing the food they consume. (A telling stat: The grain fed to livestock in the U.S. could feed nearly 800 million people directly.)
That’s exactly why the Chirps founders and their fellow dietary innovators are looking lower on the food chain for our future fuel. Crickets, for example, are rich in protein, low in fat, and high in calcium and iron—yet it takes just one gallon of water and two bags of feed to produce a pound of cricket meat (as opposed to 2,000 gallons and 25 bags for a pound of beef). “Insects are animals and taste like animals,” says D’Asaro. “You can’t make a much more realistic meat replacement than that.”
When it comes to finding a sustainable protein source, is D’Asaro right—are bugs really our best replacement for meat? Right now, in a large lab on the outskirts of Los Angeles, dozens of top-notch scientists are tinkering with plant proteins, hoping to prove D’Asaro’s statement wrong. These bright minds have been recruited by Beyond Meat, an eco-conscious company that’s attempting to realign plant matter into a structure that perfectly mimics animal tissue.
“There’s almost no mistaking that meaty texture [of real meat],” the company’s founder, Ethan Brown, explains when asked what separates Beyond Meat from the Tofurkys and Gardenburgers of the world. “So we’re spending millions of dollars a year on figuring out how to replicate it.”
Brown’s company—which has been backed by big tech-world investors, including the creators of Twitter—isn’t the only think-tank focused on making more palatable “meat without feet.” In 2013, Dutch scientists grew the world’s first “test-tube burger” by starting with a few cow cells in a petri dish, a two-year project that cost $325,000.
They’ve since reduced the price per patty to $11, but the research team admits it will be another 20 years before they can make cultured meat commercially viable—and tackle the taste testers’ gripes.
VEGGIES OF THE SEA
Sometime last year—while those Dutch innovators were busy fine-tuning their approach to lab-made meat—Chris Langdon, a marine scientist at Oregon State University (OSU), made an exciting accidental discovery. On a whim, he decided to fry up the unique strain of dulse seaweed he had developed to feed to shellfish, then eat it himself. And guess what? It tasted like…bacon!
Food visionaries rejoiced. Could this particular salty-sweet strain of algae be a gateway food for our seaweed-suspicious society? “While not high in protein, seaweeds are packed with vitamins and minerals,” explains Michael Morrissey, the director of OSU’s Food Innovation Center, where food scientists are scrambling to deliver dulse in products ranging from salad dressings to crackers.
Like Morrissey, sustainability experts strongly believe that algae farming could become the world’s largest crop in the future: It grows fast and can be cultivated in the ocean, which is a major plus with land and fresh water in short supply.
Algae also has health values beyond its basic nutrient profile. Scientists are especially excited that seaweed tastes salty yet isn’t high in dietary sodium—meaning it could add flavor to foods without raising our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Yup, that’s right. In 20 years time, you may be sprinkling seaweed granules—not salt—on your french fries!
YOUR DIET: 2050
Right now, you’re probably still sitting at your desk thinking: No way. I’ll never choke down a single six-legged creature or slurp some slimy sea vegetable. “[Americans] haven’t made the leap to eating insects whole, and I don’t know if we will,” says Amy Bentley, a food historian and associate professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “Food taboos are incredibly strong.”
But then again, many of today’s delicacies didn’t start out that way. Lobster, now a gourmet dish, was once thought of as the “insect of the sea”— a throwaway food served to servants and prisoners. And how about one of today’s go-to healthy meals, the sushi roll? Well, it’s a pretty safe bet that eating raw fish would have made Grandma gag at your age (unless, of course, she hails from Asia, where this particular dish originated).
The truth is, with the right resourceful scientists, creative culinary experts, and visionary businessmen on the job, your generation may be at the forefront of changing the way humans eat forever—whether you like it or not. Because what starts with some inconspicuous cricket-flour tortilla chips or a bacon-flavored seaweed snack can slowly evolve into a widespread belief that eating whole insects with a side of mushy seaweed is no big deal.
“Americans are really genius at making products and marketing them,” Bentley explains of the forces that have driven our diet for decades. “If you got Beyoncé to sell algae, I bet it would do pretty well.”