The wonderful, seaweed-flavored, kind of scary future of food

[USA] I saw the future of food at a start-up competition in San Francisco. I ate algae, crickets, and seaweed. I met Willy Wonka. And I am now convinced we’re embarking on a quest to redefine edibility itself.

What can we eat? Deformed fruit? Brown-green seaweed? Biotech concoctions of “new edible materials?” As long as it’s edible, tasty, and safe, who says we can’t eat bugs or weeds?

The competition, FoodBytes, started off on a somber note: world hunger, the obesity epidemic, soil degradation, climate change. These issues are real. The UN even estimated that farmers will have to produce 70% more food to feed the nine billion human beings populating this small planet by 2050.

The most exciting start-ups rose to these challenges by combining science, nature, and art. They redefine edibility by producing food from stuff that isn’t that food: Shrimp made from algae, pasta made out of seaweed, cheese made from plants, energy bars made with carrots or dried crickets.

It’s Not Shrimp, but It Is Shrimp

Photo: Courtesy of New Wave Foods
Photo: Courtesy of New Wave Foods

Dominique Barnes, the CEO of New Wave Foods, explained Shr!mp (with an exclamation mark) this way: “It’s not shrimp, but it is shrimp.” She wouldn’t explain the ingredients, other than to say they’re concocted from a plant-based protein powder and red algae. Shr!mp are vegetarian, kosher, and far easier on the environment. Shrimp have ten times the carbon footprint of cattle, generating something one journalist called a “turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond.” Gross.

I wanted to like the not-shrimp shrimp, but it was difficult. True, it didn’t taste like shrimp. Also true, it didn’t taste like something I would choose to eat—kind of rubbery, kind of fishy. Even with the salty breading, Shr!mp tasted like nuggets of shrimp aspiration.

Is It Pasta?

seamore-seaweed-pasta-1024x683

Next up was Seamore, a seaweed pasta company based in Amsterdam. Willem Sodderland, the founder, promised to feed the world one billion servings of seaweed by 2030. He looked a little like Willy Wonka, so I believed him.

When I tried Seamore, I decided it was a good seaweed salad: sesame seeds, cilantro, shredded carrots, a light sesame oil. It just wasn’t a good pasta salad. Seaweed is very different from pasta—one is marine algae, the other is unleavened flour dough.

Seamore reminded me of zucchini noodles and spaghetti squash and all the other not-pastas that will never, ever be confused with pasta. They’re just vegetables cut into strings. Cauliflower “mac” and cheese deserves the quotation marks. Don’t get me wrong—it’s all tasty. It’s just not pasta.

But Sodderland promised us a lot more with a hint to his next product: A “special kind of seaweed that, if you fry it, it turns into bacon.” And this is real! Researchers at Oregon State patented this magic seabacon last year. It’s a red macro-algae called dulse. The court is still out on whether dulse tastes good but one researcher described as a “God’s vegetable”: healthy, sustainable, tasty-ish.

 

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