From the fantastic (hangover-free booze for the grownups) to the not-for-the-faint-of-stomach (a glass of sweat or "sewage brewage"), these futuristic food technologies could change the way we eat and drink.
Soylent (not the retro-futuristic film) is a brown, nutritious goop containing everything the human body needs to survive: All the carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. The drink is a complete meal replacement designed to "free your body" from food. Soylent's co-founders wanted to create an alternative source of sustenance that was healthy, convenient, and affordable.
The FDA has classified the substance as a food, not a supplement, and some people live solely off of the stuff—though whether Soylent is a safe and sustainable replacement for a varied, healthy diet in the long term is still uncertain. “I grab this drink and it has everything I need,” says Nina Mabry, who has been drinking Soylent for two months, eating food only on social occasions. “It completely removes my head from the experience of nourishing myself.” Since starting Soylent, Mabry says her health, energy, and sleep have improved.
The drink was developed for efficiently maximizing nutrition, rather than prioritizing taste and texture. Some people enjoy it: “I really like the taste. I look forward to it,” Mabry says, describing Soylent as “especially bland,” “a little oaty,” and “vaguely sweet.” Others have more critical reviews. Among the more colorful is Gawker’s, whose staff said Soylent tastes “like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass.”
Soylent is now selling its fifth version—the first shipped to consumers in May 2014. Soylent also maintains an active DIY community where they encourage fans to make their own Soylent modifications and recipes.
2. and 3. Aroma Fork and Sonic Seasoning
Load up a liquid fragrance onto the AromaFork before your meal, and you can make broccoli taste like bubblegum. At least, so says Molecule-R, the company behind the invention, which was unveiled in March 2014. “The fork is designed not so much to use as an everyday utensil but rather, a tool to experiment,” Sophie Bovin of Molecule-R told NPR. With 21 vials of scents—including strawberry, vanilla, basil, smoke and wasabi—the AromaFork works by tricking the brain's perception of taste. Because our sense of smell is more refined than our taste buds, we can distinguish more nuances in aromas than in flavors, and pairing smells with foods can change and enhance the tasting experience.
Similarly, with "sonic seasoning," the flavor of foods can be manipulated just by changing the background music. Researchers at Oxford University have found that high-pitched notes—such as those from a piano or flute—make food seem sweeter, while low-pitched sounds—like from brass instruments—boost bitterness. Saltiness and sourness can be affected by sound, too. The results are promising for cooks who want to cut back on unhealthy ingredients without losing the flavor; the experiments have shown a food's taste can be changed by up to 10 percent just by adjusting the sound. You can experience your own bittersweet symphony here. Try it with a foodstuff that has both notes, such as coffee or chocolate.
Airplane food is notoriously awful, partially because the cabin conditions and noise at 35,000 feet in the sky dull passengers’ sense of taste. British Airways is using the sonic seasoning research to combat this phenomenon and improve the in-flight dining experience. Their 13-track playlist, called “Sound Bite,” matches each menu item with a carefully selected song to enhance the flavors of their food.
4. and 5. Omniprocessor and Sweat Machine
To reduce water shortages, scientists are looking into widely available, if unappetizing, liquids. One of Bill Gates' latest projects is the Omniprocessor, an energy efficient machine that, in a matter of minutes, turns piles of poop into what Gates calls "a glass of delicious drinking water." Oregon craft brewers are in the process of getting state government permission to produce "sewage brewage" by making beer from recycled wastewater.
In 2013, Swedish engineer Andreas Hammar built the Sweat Machine, a contraption that could extract clean water from sweaty shirts. The device was created for a UNICEF campaign to raise awareness about the 780 million people worldwide lacking access to clean drinking water. It has admirable intent, but the machine is better suited for publicity purposes than practical applications—one person’s perspiration produces a mere mouthful (about 0.3 ounces) of liquid.
The Sweat Machine works by spinning and heating worn clothes and then purifying the resulting water vapor. The technique, called membrane distillation, passes steamy sweat through a Goretex-like gate material, which lets the steam through but leaves bacteria, salts, and other substances behind. At the International Space Station, astronauts use a similar technology to recycle their urine. The finished product, they say, is cleaner than your tap water.
6. Alcosynth and Chaperone: The Buzz Without Barfing
What if you could get the booze-like buzz without the morning after hangover or long term liver damage? British scientist David Nutt has spent more than 10 years developing what he believes could be a safer alternative to alcohol in the form of two non-toxic drugs: alcosynth and chaperone. Alcosynth is a benzodiazepine, a cousin of Valium, but without the risks of withdrawal or addiction, says Nutt. Chaperone is a "sober up pill" that can counter the effects of having had too much to drink. It's intended to reduce drunk driving and other alcohol related crimes.
Nutt envisions that the two pills would be sold in bars. Alcosynth would be priced relatively cheaply and encouraged as an alternative to a cocktail, while Chaperone would be more expensive to discourage people from abusing it. Nutt has applied for patents on 85 chemical compounds related to Alcosynth and Chaperone, but he anticipates at least three to five years of legal and medical trials before the drugs could be on the market.
Animal-free alternatives to milk include soy, almond, coconut—and now, yeast. Biotech startup Muufri is using genetically engineered yeast to produce milk without the cow. Founders Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi are vegan bioengineers who believe their product is a more humane and sustainable substitute for cow's or goat's milk.
According to a UNESCO-IHE study [PDF], it takes 1000 liters of water to produce 1 liter of cow’s milk. “Making an entire cow to make just the milk is inefficient,” Gandhi told National Geographic. “You're giving it all this feed and water, and most of it goes towards growing legs, growing a head, growing a liver and lungs—just living.” The Muufri system takes fewer resources to make its final product.
Using "six key proteins for structure and function" grown by injecting cattle DNA into yeast cells, and "eight key fatty acids for flavor and richness," all from non-animal sources, Pandya and Gandhi have created a concoction that they say mimics the taste and nutrition of dairy—without any bacteria, hormones, pesticides, cholesterol, or lactose. They hope to have Muufri on store shelves in 2017.
Researchers have been experimenting with 3-D printed food for a while, making sweet designs out of sugar and chocolate at places like The Sugar Lab. Soon the technology may be making its way onto your kitchen counter at home. Breakfasters will never be bored again with the PancakeBot, which prints intricate flapjack creations using a computer program and SD card. There's also Foodini, a 3-D printing kitchen appliance that automates food assembly and uses fresh ingredients to make healthy home-cooked meals. The machine can shape pretzels, for example, or layer pasta and filling to make ravioli, speeding up processes that take tediously long by hand. Both devices are expected to become available later this year.
9. Cotton Candy Grapes
With notes of caramel, toffee, and vanilla, Cotton Candy Grapes strangely and strongly evoke flavors of the fluffy pink confection. They may have 12 percent more sugar than regular table grapes, but they're still a much healthier alternative than their namesake. Developed by David Cain at the California company, International Fruit Genetics, the grapes were created not with genetic modification, but by using centuries-old plant breeding techniques. By cross-pollinating two plant species over the course of many plant generations, horticulturists can select desirable characteristics for their "designer fruit." The fruits of this sort of labor include the pluot (plum plus apricot), peacharine (peachy sweet and fuzz-less like a nectarine), and other hybrids.
KFC wasn’t the first company to foray into the world of edible packaging with its cookie coffee cups. WikiPearls, dreamed up by Harvard professor David Edwards, are bite-sized balls of food wrapped in a flavored, protective skin. The result is ice cream, yogurt, and cheese made into finger food, with an edible gel coating that also helps to keep the food cold.
With any sort of edible packaging, hygiene can be a concern for consumers. Because of this, some stores that currently sell WikiPearls are packaging them in plastic, which sort of defeats the environmentally-friendly purpose.