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Stir-Fry Crickets and Sauteed Weeds: Why the Food of the Future Won’t Be Nutrient Powder

June 14, 2015
by Stacy Finz

Remember Tang? It was the “space age” drink that in 1962 astronaut John Glenn sipped in orbit on his Mercury flight, and for a while thought to be the next generation of orange juice. It was considered convenient because it came in powder form, was less perishable than juice, and boasted lots of vitamins and calcium.

Then, 51 years later, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the moon, proclaimed that “Tang sucks.” For some of us that opinion had come much earlier. Still today, scientists and entrepreneurs continue to explore food’s new frontiers, looking for the next big thing.

Fake eggs, fake meat, fake mayonnaise, nondairy dairy, powdered meal-replacement drinks… These are just some of the multitude of products lining the shelves, claiming to be saviors of the planet, the future of health reform, the nemesis of factory farms, or just an easy and nonperishable way to get a cheap, quick nutrition fix that doesn’t require having to actually sit down for a meal. Manufacturers argue that raising beef and dairy cows, poultry, and other livestock for protein is inefficient—that going the synthetic way produces fewer carbon emissions. Others say eating weeds and bugs is part of the answer. In any case, many experts agree that everything from the way we grow our food to the way we load our plates has to change.

For example, consider Soylent (named from the 1970s futuristic science-fiction flick Soylent Green, in which overcrowding has forced people to eat wafers made from, among other things, human flesh)—a food substitute invented by San Francisco techie Robert Rhinehart. He found that eating was time prohibitive, not to mention a drag. Unlike Soylent Green, Soylent powder is engineered from a bevy of chemical components and, according to Rhinehart, has minimal impact on the environment. The company’s motto is “What if you never had to worry about food again?”

The thing is, we do have to worry about food. Yes, Houston, we have a problem. The dilemma over the earth’s endurance—climate change, shrinking farmlands, and population growth—is so daunting that for the first time, the U.S. government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines address the impact of producing food and beverages on the environment, creating eating policy that promotes sustainability.

“The environmental impact of food production is considerable, and if natural resources such as land, water, and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost,” states the guidelines’ scientific report. It goes on to say that global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of freshwater use, and as much as 30 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change, shifts in population dietary patterns and demand for food products, energy costs, and population growth will continue to put additional pressures on available natural resources,” according to the report. Bottom line: The next generation of Tang, or Soylent, has to pack a nutritional punch while treading lightly on the land.

“In order to enhance our protection from chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, we should include phytochemicals—beta carotene and lycopene are examples—in our diet,” says Patricia Crawford, a UC Berkeley adjunct professor in the School of Public Health, and director of the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight & Health. “At this point we don’t have the know-how to replicate them in tablets, vitamins, or supplements. You still have to get them from their natural sources: foods that are grown.”

The Dietary Guidelines say that in order to meet current and future food needs, we have to alter our diets and develop agricultural and production practices that don’t damage the environment and conserve resources, while still maintaining food and nutrition needs. Basically, the new guidelines aim to shift consumer demand away from more resource-intensive foods, to foods that have a lower impact on the environment.

It takes ten pounds of grain to make one pound of meat and 36 per­cent of the cal­or­ies pro­duced in the world are in grain for live­stock.

According to the guidelines, diets higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods, are healthiest and also have lower environmental impacts. No food group has to be eliminated completely—but we need to rethink what priority certain foods hold on the plate.

For instance, maybe beef becomes a side dish while vegetables are the entrée. Claire Kremen, an agrobiologist, ecologist, and a professor with Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, says it takes ten pounds of grain to make one pound of meat and that 36 percent of the calories produced in the world are in grain for livestock.

“It’s very inefficient,” she says, adding, “We don’t have to eat fake meat to get our protein.” Kremen says there is lots of protein in vegetables, and you can get the same required amino acids that meat provides by eating certain combinations of food, such as corn and beans.

The beef industry argues that lean meat is the most nutrient-dense food source, providing high levels of essential nutrients with fewer calories than other sources.

“In the 1980s, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans first recommended that people lower intakes of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. The beef community responded to this call to action and to subsequent consumer demands for leaner beef,” according to a response by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, a committee of 100 beef, dairy, and veal producers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The board takes issue with the new guidelines. “Since the 1980 DGA were issued, external fat on retail beef cuts has decreased by 81 percent. Today, 66 percent of beef cuts sold at retail meet government standards for lean (when cooked and trimmed), including eight extra-lean cuts considered by the American Heart Association to be heart healthy, making it increasingly simple for consumers to choose lean meats. In addition, there has been an estimated 44 percent reduction in available total fat, and a 29 percent reduction in saturated fat per capita contributed by beef. Today, total beef consumption only contributes 5 percent of the calories and 10 percent or less of total and saturated fat in the U.S. diet.”

Although the 2015 guidelines call for less meat, they also say that a moderate amount of seafood should be included in Americans’ diets because the health benefits outweigh the risk from mercury, and that the industry is hustling to meet global demand. The report also acknowledges that overfishing and mining the sea have caused ecological fallout, and that farm-raised fish (a method often compared to feedlots where animals are crammed together, increasing the risk for disease) may very well have to be the future.

It takes two pounds of feed to pro­duce one pound of crick­ets, and you can raise a mil­lion crick­ets—there are about 1,000 crick­ets in a pound—in a space the size of a one-car gar­age. And it only takes six weeks to raise a crick­et from baby to har­vest.

The report acknowledges that “concern has been raised about the safety and nutrient content of farm-raised versus wild-caught seafood. To supply enough seafood to support meeting dietary recommendations, both farm-raised and wild-caught seafood will be needed. The review of the evidence demonstrated, in the species evaluated, that farm-raised seafood has as much or more EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) per serving as wild-caught.”

Others say, what about insects? Bugs have been a large protein source for much of the world but are overlooked by North America and Europe. They’re relatively inexpensive to produce, don’t take up a lot of space, and require fewer resources to raise than most livestock, says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake.

The United Nations wholeheartedly agrees. “It is widely accepted that by 2050, the world will host 9 billion people,” says a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that urges the world to mound their supper dishes with insects. Citing hunger statistics and production challenges, the report concludes, “Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries.”

Imrie-Situnayake and his two partners own Tiny Farms Inc. in Oakland and raise crickets for human consumption. He says that according to Blueshift Research, a market survey company, a third of the U.S. citizens surveyed would likely buy an insect-based product. Nowadays, specialty grocery stores are carrying flours as well as protein bars made with insects.

“We’ve got this potentially gigantic market,” says Imrie-Situnayake, adding that any dish you would use shrimp in lends itself to crickets, including stir-fry. “At this point, there is not enough supply to meet the demand.”

Crickets contain the same amount of protein per serving weight as a chicken breast, Imrie-Situnayake explains. It takes two pounds of feed to produce one pound of crickets, and you can raise a million crickets—there are about 1,000 crickets in a pound—in a space the size of a one-car garage, he says. And it only takes six weeks to raise a cricket from baby to harvest.

Kimberly Egan is one of the founders and CEO of CCD Innovation, a San Francisco food and beverage product development company. She says 2 billion people a year eat 1,900 insect species as part of their diets. Sautéed or fried, 100 grams of red ants provide 14 grams of protein, 48 grams of calcium, and 100 calories, she says.

“Millennials and Gen Xers are willing to embrace it,” Egan says. “It’s not a tomorrow product. But we could be seeing it [more prominently] in five years. But it definitely needs to be on our radar.”

Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute at Cal, is dubious. “They’re really kind of a rip-off,” she contends, pointing to the fact that a pound of crickets goes for as much as $45 retail. “To me it seems like a designer thing—ooh, bugs.” She’s more inclined to think the future is weeds—the stuff that grows wildly on the side of the road.

“Our survey has already confirmed that there are mountains of wild edible plants in urban food deserts in the Bay Area, even at the end of the summer in a record drought year [2014], the worst since approximately 800 A.D.,” writes Berkeley Open Source Food, a project funded in part by the Berkeley Food Institute that focuses on increasing the supply of fresh, affordable, nutritious, drought-resistant, low-carbon-impact greens, especially in urban food deserts.

Whether it’s weeds or bugs, Egan says, beef, pork, and even chicken will begin fading as the core of the meal. As for dairy: Many consumers have already turned to nut and soy milks for taste and dietary reasons, she reports.

Milk alternatives are the fastest-growing sector of the dairy market, according to Mintel, Inc., an international product research firm. Sales for plant-based milk alternatives grew to almost $2 billion in 2013, an increase of 30 percent since 2011. In those two years, dairy milk sales grew by only 1.8 percent, to $24.5 billion, according to Mintel. The company predicts that sales growth for milk alternatives will continue to outpace real milk through at least 2018. In Egan’s experience, shoppers are willing to try new foods as long as they’re “real.”

“Things made in a laboratory that are fabricated are going to be suspect to consumers,” she said, rejecting the idea that the future of food is just a Petri dish away. “People will always want their food to come from a real source, instead of synthetic foods made to have the same DNA make up.”

Thrupp agrees that there has to be a shift in how we eat, and substituting artificial foods for real foods isn’t the answer. “People don’t realize the energy involved in technology solutions,” she points out. “We’re much better off with a plant-based diet.”

Well, that certainly rules out Tang. 

Stacy Finz is a Bay Area newspaper reporter turned romance novelist. Her Second Chances, third in the Nugget series, was published by Lyrical Press in April 2015.

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