Synthetic Food

Synthetic Food: Why Bother?

Today’s article is about Synthetic Food.  No, I don’t mean food with artificial ingredients.  I mean food that’s 100% artificial.  I mean food that’s literally produced in a factory (and originally developed in a lab).  I mean food that has never seen a field. I mean food that was never alive at any point.

What’s so hot about Synthetic Food?  Well…

Ethics.  Some people are concerned about the treatment of animals and/or the environmental cost of meat production. Artificially produced meat promises to address both of these issues.

Food supply.  Food production depends on numerous factors like the weather, soil quality, availability of arable land, etc… Synthetic food eliminates these dependencies and hence is more reliable. Imagine poorer countries not having to worry about famines due to droughts.

Nutrition.  Currently, we try to get our nutritional needs by eating a variety of foods. This is another way of saying we don’t know what we need and are playing the odds.  With synthetic food, the nutritional profiles of our foods can be made complete so that anything we eat, from a dessert to a meal can offer a complete nutritional profile.

Dieting.  Currently, dieters have to watch their food intake. With synthetic foods, tasty foods with no calories can be produced.  This promises to do for food what artificial sweeteners did for diet sodas.

Two Big Challenges

Perception.  Many people still have a knee-jerk reaction to artificial products, not realizing that our standard of living is thanks to these products. Medicine, communication, transportation, etc… are not natural.  Unfortunately, this kind of resistance can hinder the funding and adoption of synthetic foods.  Yes, there have been (and will continue to be) mistakes, but the gains have dramatically outweighed the mistakes.

Knowledge.  Synthetic foods that are superior to natural ones are theoretically possible. After all, nutrients are just chemicals, so why can’t we manufacture them?  The key is knowing everything the human body needs; do we know this? Further research may be necessary.

Steps in the Right Direction

A Nutritionally Complete Food created as a space experiment in 1965. It wasn’t tasty, but it did do the job.  Given how long ago that was, should show that we are up to the challenge.

Speaking of appetizing, how about synthetic gourmet dish?

Finally, for further reading, you can try Magnus Pyke’s Synthetic Food.  It’s an older book and a rather dry read…

Conclusion

Many people bemoan the long list of chemicals in our food, but I wonder if the problem is that we don’t have MORE chemicals?  Part of the shelf life, cost and availability of food is thanks to these chemicals.  For all that can be said about our artificially produced foods, a good deal of the world has better access to food than at any point in the past.  Say what you will about obesity, but the fact that the poor (in industrialized nations at least) are generally MORE obese is a dramatic improvement over the past where they simply starved. 

People are industrious; they invent and they mass produce, so why not take that to the production of food? Maybe this increasing list of chemicals will continue to grow until all traces of natural ingredients vanish in our foods.  Will that be so bad?

Questions

1. Would you eat synthetic food?

2. Are there any types of foods whose synthetic equivalents you wouldn’t eat?

3. What concerns (if any) do you have about synthetic or artificial foods?

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12 thoughts on “Synthetic Food

  1. I agree with all of the above. There is this belief that everything natural is good and everything artificial is bad, which to me is just an irrational fear. I don’t see anyone in their right mind would sign up for going back to the stone age, though you never know.
    Regarding your three questions:
    1. Yes. Don’t we already? (at least partially)
    2. Nothing springs to mind.
    3. My concerns are not about synthetic foods, but about regulation and supervision. Just like it is important to have extensive supervision to ensure the food we eat is healthy (living in China, I know exactly what lack of supervision causes) it would be necessary to have exactly the same standards for synthetic food. If we just let the industry do whatever they want, we’ll most likely end up poisoned, just like we do here in China 30% of the time we eat out.

    1. True, we do eat at least partly synthetic food. I was thinking of eating a food that was entirely synthetic, or even an entirely synthetic diet.

      I understand your concerns about regulation. Would synthetic foods offer more chances for being poisoned? On the one hand, badly mixing chemicals can be fatal. On the other hand, are there as many opportunities for contamination?

      1. I’m dead serious. The level of food safety in China is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. 50% of the bottled water that’s sold (not tap water) is actually fake and made with non-drinkable water. You can’t tell which is which because they use bottles with the brand of the good companies. This actually caused me to be sick almost every day for the first part of this year (until I found a company that didn’t sell bad water.) Like that, going to a random restaurant is a bit like playing roulette with your health. Just recently we found out that a good portion of the lamb skewers being sold are actually made of rat.
        Even in my school teachers usually boil the bottled water before giving it to the children and I recently discovered that the water dispensers were mouldy inside. I’m talking about an international private school which hosts some of the richest children in China. So you get the idea.
        And you probably understand why I hate this country so much… I have the feeling people just don’t care whether they make others sick, as long as the make an extra buck, and the government is the first to do this (for example, by selling gas with 40 times the allowed level of lead). Not only is this immoral, but it also affects me in a direct way.

  2. 1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. Like above, I worry about being poisoned in the long run. And also, instead of decreasing our imprint on Earth, I fear many people will go nuts since we don’t feed off the Earth’s natural resources anymore. Why then should they care if pecan trees go entirely extinct or something like that?

    1. True… although if our only motivation for saving resources is consumption, that would leave us precious little worth saving. Why save Pandas, etc.. then?

      On the other hand, I imagine less land would be used for farming… would some of that land revert back to nature? But then the chemicals have to come from somewhere…

      1. I’m not sure if I’m reading you correctly. Most people who care about saving pandas seem to just care about pandas, pecan trees and such, the same. Not for consumption. But those who do save whatever so that we will be able to consume it later- and not for love of nature- won’t have that hanging over their heads anymore. But, I don’t really know how synthetic whatevers are made, haha

        I imagine less land would be used for farming… and turned into mall complexes. Hrm… I am not usually pessimistic about anything.. But this sounds dreary.

  3. Hi there, BR!
    I had to think about this one. The idea of synthetic food does not appeal to me at all.
    In a way, our food has changed a lot already. But when I go to the supermarket, I try to avoid the processed stuff. (When you wrote in an earlier article about something processed to such an extent that your local shop did not stock it, it made me cringe!)
    I do not like to think I am eating some kind of filler, even if there are vitamins and minerals and artificial flavours added in abundance, but that is just personal preference. 🙂

    We had tomatoes that lost their smell, because the people who grew them had focussed to much on them being sturdy enough to survive transport. In fact, most of the fruit you can buy has been picked before it matured for just that reason and that makes it taste bland.

    So there seem to be two things going on: real food is becoming more and more artificial (and I’m not just thinking about genetic manipulation, here) and artificial food will be on the shelves, sooner than we think. I’m sorry, but I am not a fan.

    1. I also heard that quite a bit of fruit has been bred to have a higher sugar level…

      As for the flavor, what if synthetic foods had perfect flavor profiles? After all, much of our flavor is dependent on things like freshness. With synthetic food, perhaps the whole flavor/mass production/transport/price issue would cease to be a factor?

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