Our Sense of Taste and the Future of Food Security

enterra

March 24, 2014

The world population is predicted to reach 9 billion people by the year 2050. Bill Gates, Microsoft mogul and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asks, “What are all those people going to eat?” [“Bill Gates: Food Is Ripe for Innovation,” Mashable, 21 March 2013] He’s not the only one who is asking that question. Although raising enough food is a concern, it is exacerbated by the fact that as more people claw their way out of poverty’s grasp their food consumption habits change dramatically — especially when it comes to the consumption of meat. People living in poverty can rarely afford to eat meat; therefore, it is no surprise that as they join the middle class they develop a taste for meat. Here’s the rub. The current course of global consumption is probably unsustainable. Although the emerging global middle class is contributing to this challenge, Jeremy Oppenheim, a director of McKinsey & Company, and Tristram Stuart, a British author and campaigner against food waste, note that it is not entirely a developing world problem. “Much anxiety is directed toward growing demand for meat and dairy products in China and India,” they write. “But per capita meat consumption in the United States and Europe is still more than three times higher than in either country.“ [“Food for All,” Project Syndicate, 13 November 2013] Here’s the kicker. Oppenheim and Stuart write:

“In addition to eating less meat, production of it needs to be more resource-efficient. In the past, cattle, sheep, and goats fed on grass and other energy sources unavailable to humans, while pigs and chickens fed on waste, thus contributing overall to total food availability. Now one-third of all arable land is used to grow crops to feed livestock, not to grow staple crops for people. The rich buy this food to feed their animals, outbidding the poor who want to buy it to feed their children. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that using more by-products and waste to feed livestock could liberate enough food on the world market to feed an additional three billion people.”

While I’m sure that Oppenheim and Stuart would like to see less meat consumed, they are realistic enough to know that most people are going to continue to want to consume meat products. They note that governments are contributing to the problem by passing poorly considered legislation. They suggest “an end to legislation in the European Union and some US states prohibiting the use of food waste to feed pigs and chickens because of the risk of animal diseases. These risks can be managed effectively through proper treatment systems (as in Japan and South Korea). The environmental, economic, and social benefits would be enormous.” Since we are appealing to taste, Bill Gates suggests that there is another path that can be pursued. “That’s one reason why I’m excited about innovations taking place now in food production,” he writes, “which especially interests me as someone who worries about the poor getting enough to eat.” He continues:

“There’s quite a lot of interesting physics, chemistry and biology involved in how food tastes, how cooking changes its taste, and why we like some tastes and not others. My friend Nathan Myrhvold took a deep dive into the science and technology of cooking with his huge book, Modernist Cuisine. Nathan is great at explaining things like why we like meat so much, and why cream-based sauces are so good. Which leads to interesting questions, like could we create those tastes in ways that are less expensive, less fattening and less work? I’ve gotten to learn about several new food companies that are creating plant-based alternatives to meat through some monetary investments I’ve made with Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins. Their products are at least as healthy as meat and are produced more sustainably. But what makes them really interesting is their taste. Food scientists are now creating meat alternatives that truly taste like — and have the same ‘mouth feel’ — as their nature-made counterparts. Flavor and texture have been the biggest hurdles for most people in adopting meat alternatives. But companies like Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek Foods and Lyrical are doing some amazing things. Their actual recipes are secret, but the science is straightforward. By using pressure and precisely heating and cooling oils and plant proteins (like powdered soybeans and vegetable fiber), you can achieve the perfect flavor and texture of meat or eggs. I tasted Beyond Meat’s chicken alternative, for example, and honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken.”

In our work with flavors at Enterra Solutions®, we understand that the sense of taste really involves all of the senses and you can’t simply look at what the tongue senses to understand the phenomenon of flavors and how they are perceived. Gates’ point out that by marrying science with perception we can provide people with foods they will enjoy (even savor) without continuing on an unsustainable consumption path. Like Oppenheim and Stuart, Gates is concerned that we are feeding crops to livestock that could feed people. He explains:

“New, future food is crucial for the developing world, where people often do not get enough protein. This is partly due to heavy reliance on animals as the primary source. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. There’s plenty of protein and necessary amino acids in plants, including the world’s four major commodity crops — rice, maize, wheat and soy. The problem is that instead of feeding these crops to people, we’re feeding most of them to livestock. And so we’re caught in an inefficient protein-delivery system. For every 10 kilograms of grain we feed cattle, we get 1 kilogram of beef in return. The calorie kick-back is just too low to feed a growing world population. So we need to find new ways to deliver protein and calories to everyone.”

When Gates refers to “future food,” he is really talking about food that tricks our senses into believing that what we are eating is something entirely different. I suspect that if future food becomes ubiquitous a lot of people won’t be asking “What am I eating?” Instead, they will be asking, “What does it taste like?” Roxanne Palmer notes, “Taste remains a tricky thing to manipulate.” [“Tricking The Tongue: How Biotechnology Might Let Us Cut Sugar And Salt, But Keep The Taste,” International Business Times, 14 December 2013] “In ‘The Matrix’,” she writes, “the machines that rule the Earth have locked humanity in a total immersion experience that fools all five senses, including taste. Digital information fed to millions of captive brains makes people think they’re eating steak or cereal instead of nutrient goop.” The eating experience in “The Matrix” was a cyber-experience and that is not what Gates and Palmer are talking about. They are discussing how science can be used to trick our natural senses. Palmer notes that taste manipulation is considered so important for the future of food that “some of the biggest food companies in the world are having a go at it – with the aim of shaping the future of nutrition and maybe making a pile of money in the process.”

As Gates noted, however, it’s texture, not just its taste, that has to be manipulated (and I would add that the eye also needs to be fooled). I noted in a previous post, crunchiness is a texture that is universally desired. Apparently, getting crunchiness just right is not as easy as it might seem. General Mills has hired a young inventor, Mark King, who created “a device that measures the texture of granola bars.” [“A Young Inventor, Finding the Crunch Factor,” by Jack Hitt, New York Times, 22 February 2014] Hitt notes, “In the science of food, texture is big doings.” The bottom line is that to alter the course of humanity from the path of unsustainable consumption, “future foods” are going to have to play a role. A lot of science (and art) are going to be used to make such foods not just palatable but desirable.