With the organic and fresh food movement still making strong progress (Forbes reported that major packaged food companies lost $4 billion in market share last year, with most of it going to smaller, ‘greener’ competitors), it might be surprising to see that there are many start-ups in the food industry using technological innovations to improve our food. One well-known example of this is Soylent, the Los Angeles-based company attempting to perfect a complete meal replacement drink for those of us with no time to waste on non-essential activities like actually eating food.
In many cases these food start-ups are directly addressing the ethical and environmental concerns that many modern consumers have with the “big food” industry. However, where the organic movement might propose that the increased use of technology is the problem, start-ups like New York-based Modern Meadow see it as the solution. They’re working on a technology that uses small muscle biopsies from cattle to grow meat in the lab, potentially using over 95% less land and water while producing 96% less greenhouse gas, all without slaughtering any animals.
Some companies are planning to do away with livestock altogether, pointing out that producing animal protein has a much higher environmental cost than equivalent amounts of plant based protein. The end goal is that consumers won’t even notice the difference – Impossible Food and Beyond Meat are both developing beef-free burgers that taste and look identical to the real thing, while Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo recently beat a leading brand of conventional mayonnaise in blind taste tests despite not containing any egg. Next up is scrambled egg without the egg (Just Scramble), which is due to be rolled out at the end of this year.
Rather than create new foods from scratch, some start-ups are attempting to recycle old food into new ingredients. By freeze drying food that is about to reach its sell-by date, FoPo can retain roughly 60% of the food’s nutritional value for up to two years. The powdered foodstuffs can be used to provide easily transportable proper nutrition for humanitarian crises, or even sold back to food retailers as supplements. Even more intriguingly, one of the applications proposed on FoPo’s website is 3D printed tapiocha, although the accompanying video doesn’t make it look particularly appetising.
Some food of the future might be even more alien to the dining room tables of 2015. Companies like Aquatic Energy, a Louisiana-based applied biotechnology and aquaculture company, are using massive open water farms to cultivate algae for use as a high-protein content supplement to human food. Again, it’s possible that consumers won’t notice any difference – the algae may well be supplied in powdered form, much like spirulina and other currently available supplements.
In the end, what most of these start-ups are providing is convenience. While organic eating and vegetarianism require active participation by consumers to make the choice to support more sustainable agriculture, these companies have recognised and are catering to the fixed tastes of modern consumers, creating realistic solutions using advanced technology.