Lowering the bar?
What I talk about when I talk about the Olympics of future food, the downside of wheat, and proteins made from spinning.
Last week was a doozy. I referred to my week as the Olympics of future food. In San Francisco, there were parties every night plus two days of Future Food Tech, the biggest annual gathering for tech innovation in food. It was amazing to be back in the world mingling, networking, and randomly talking to strangers. This was the magic of being back in person. (Good riddance Zoom.)
Future Food Tech is teeny compared to Expo West, but it was exciting to see booths of all shapes and sizes, and to meet startups face-to-face. Here are just a few I stopped by:
MeliBio is an SF startup making honey without bees. If I tasted MeliBio next to bee honey, I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Plantish is an Israeli company producing plant-based salmon that appears as if its “whole cut.” The visual was amazing, yet the taste widely misses the mark. It made me wonder if plant-based fish can ever hit the mark, and if not, why not focus on something else? (Good Catch—more food-innovators than food-techies—is the best tasting so far. They make things like crab cakes using a 6-protein blend that’s unique to the company.)
From Pairwise came mustard greens that had the bitter compounds removed from the seed using CRISPR technology. (CRISPR allows sections of genomes to be turned off to improve taste or increase yield, for example.) This wasn’t a boon for me. The greens were too mild. Too meek. But let’s imagine the possible market: young kids finally agreeing to eat dark leafy greens on their dinner plates, safe adults who finally ditch their iceberg and romaine.
There was a plant-based egg white that I actually want to eat again. EvoFoods is based in India, but plan to launch the product here in the US this year. Another company making eggs, Yo, wasn’t sampling its product—no cooking allowed on site! A workaround made itself known: On Friday, I was invited to a hotel room by Chunk Foods. Did I know them? No. Did I go? Of course! (The steak was pretty good. Not perfect, but decent.) It felt like the ultimate secret mission, and one I will definitely treasure for its out-there-ness.
Some of the foods I tried were good, some were great. Some were weird, lacking, interesting, tasty. Some were just bad. What future foods may need from us collectively is a radical shift in our palates and an overhaul of our expectations. When I sipped a can of cold brew “coffee” from Atomo, I deemed it too light. A friend called it “church coffee.” But, maybe there was a different answer? If (when?) coffee yields suddenly plummet, this coffee might instantly save me.
These New Foods don’t all have a reason for being, yet. When we do call them off the bench, will we modulate our personal desire for the foods we know, to accommodate the foods we don’t?
Umaro Foods will be on Shark Tank on April 1st. (In my book the company’s name was Trophic.) The Berkeley startup just closed a $3-million-dollar funding round. Umaro’s first commercial product, mostly to prove that protein from seaweed is a viable alternative, is bacon made with red seaweed protein. I was impressed when I tried the bacon, and I can’t wait to see what Mark Cuban says. (Sidebar: I wish the startup had flashed my book on air!)
Here’s why I still don’t trust the FDA to keep us safe in its oversight of the food industry: After decades spent trying to ensure a vitally important category is safe–-baby food-–we continue to get reports that contaminated baby food is being sold. The agency should be beyond chagrined. Our food is changing rapidly, how will they keep up?
Read this fascinating take on the ways Western society has organized itself around the production and consumption of wheat—wheat reduced how far we had to travel; how much variety we ate; it helped grow our states–wheat could be taxed; it fed armies; it created an enslaved workforce. Wheat created the food system we know today, which has many downsides, as the writer points out. Today, wheat supplies are a global challenge because of the war in Ukraine. Farmers can’t plant, they can’t harvest, grain supplies are being held up, prices are going up.
In my pea protein chapter in Technically Food, I detail how New Foods are formulating with pea instead of soy. (Although we haven’t actually abandoned soy.) In it, I detailed a fiber spinning solution that a few scientists tried hard to make a reality. General Mills briefly had dozens working on the technology, but eventually closed the shop down when it couldn’t gain traction in the marketplace. One food scientist I spoke to told me the process wasted a lot of water. Flash forward to today with Tender Foods, a startup out of Harvard that’s making protein using rotary jet-spinning. From the article: A liquid polymer solution is loaded into a reservoir, and ejected through a small opening by centrifugal force as the device spins. It sounds similar, but I need to learn more.
Here’s a great take on why the McPlant isn’t selling well, and why most of the plant-based burgers aren’t scoring high in fast food chains. The author, a meat eater, explains that he doesn’t crave a plant-based burger. I get that. (I don’t crave them either.) But, if I were to go to a fast food spot, because, I don’t know, I was in the middle of nowhere and it was the only food for hundreds of miles, I’d order the plant-based option knowing that it was a slightly better choice for me 1.) nutritionally and 2.) environmentally. What’s noticeably absent from this story is the author actually tasting the McPlant. Huh? I reviewed it and said the burger was terrible. So why isn’t the McPlant selling well? Maybe it’s because the whole category of plant-based burgers isn’t craveable or they’re just plain bad or the marketing spend isn’t enough? Or maybe we need to wait for Boomers, Gen Z and Millennials to age out of the fast food market to see any real change?
Where to find me:
I stumbled on the first essay I ever sold, which was about finally having the confidence to wear red lipstick. (I was paid $150.)
My event in Brooklyn next Wednesday is sold out. Hope to see you there!
I’m a keynote at the Northern California meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) on May 10th.
I’m attending the Walnut Creek Library Annual Author Gala on May 14th. I hear there’s an auction!
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