Innovative Foods Are On The Rise. Can They Fix Our Food Systems?

Food & Drink

There’s enormous excitement about innovative foods these days. A confluence of skyrocketing investments, consumer demand for healthier and more regenerative products and unprecedented entrepreneurship is supercharging a food sector alive with new options and possibilities.

This surge prompts questions. What should we think about the current investment frenzy? Why would we want to eat these “new” foods like algae products or cultivated (lab-grown) meat? Author and journalist Larissa Zimberoff tackles these questions – and broader trends in food innovation – in her recent book, Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. I asked her about this emerging food landscape.

Lorin Fries: You write about “New Food” in your book. What do you mean by that phrase?

Larissa Zimberoff: “New Food” is a riff on “Big Food”. It’s a hopeful name because I wanted them to do things differently – to go outside of the playbook of Big Food. I didn’t call them “future foods” because some, like pea protein or plant-based burgers, are happening right now. 

Fries: You describe a frenzy of hype and investment around these New Foods that feels like the first wave of the internet. How so?

Zimberoff: During Internet 1.0 I worked for a startup that provided content websites. Everybody wanted to be the next Yahoo. Hundreds of websites were coming up to produce content, content, content … but there wasn’t room for them all. Looking now at New Foods, there are almost 100 cultured meat companies. Eventually that’s going to shake down through acquisitions and fallout. But in the meantime, money is going everywhere to support everything that’s new and exciting, without really knowing the horse that’s going to win. Is it going to be first movers like Impossible Foods – or the fifth (or maybe the fifteenth) who learn from the mistakes made ahead of them? So we’re still in that Food 1.0 phase of investment and startup frenzy with astronomical raises. That’s going to evolve; it’ll be very interesting to watch. 

Fries: Let’s zoom in on some of these New Foods. For instance: algae. It might surprise some readers to find this in a book about food innovation. Why should we be interested in it? 

Zimberoff: I love algae because it’s historically interesting and quirky. NASA has tried to feed it to astronauts, and people are always trying to make it into something. Macro algae can grow super quickly, and the ocean is feeding it; all you have to do is harvest it. And it’s got great health benefits. Red seaweed is 48-50% protein, for instance, which is really impressive: that’s more than soy, the top dog in plant proteins. Umaro (formerly called Trophic) is working to extract the protein from red seaweed. Their plant-based bacon is the best I’ve had. 

There’s also an exciting single-celled organism – not technically algae, but similar – called lemna (or duckweed). It can double every 48 hours, it needs only water and basic nutrients, without huge landmass. And within lemna is RuBisCO, a protein that is the base of almost every plant out there. In my book I mentioned [Impossible Foods CEO and Founder] Pat Brown saying that RuBisCO was what he wanted to put in his burgers, but he couldn’t find a way to get enough of it. Plantable Foods is working on protein extraction from lemna. I’ve had it in yogurt, in a shortbread cookie, and in a bacon lardon. It’s still early for lemna, but it shows promise.

Fries: Let’s talk about another realm of innovation: upcycling. What does that mean and why is it important? 

Zimberoff: Upcycling is when the waste of one company is used as the raw material of another company. It’s actually a very old practice: margarine was created to use fat from animal slaughter, for instance, and whey protein comes from dairy. Upcycling is interesting to me because I hate food waste. The Environmental Protection Agency prioritizes feeding humans in its food recovery hierarchy. And waste costs money and effort. I think the way forward for sustainability is for every company to have upcycling metrics where they can’t waste anything. Tons of companies are coming out with sustainability pledges for 10-20 years from now, which to me seems ridiculous: we can be making real progress now. 

In researching my book I got excited about many upcycling ideas. For example, everyone talks about olive oil, but no one is doing anything with the pomace, which has more nutritional value. What could be done with carrot peels or pomegranate skins? Another thing that recently caught my eye was pecan shell flour. I eat the peel on fruits as much as I can: it’s delicious, and it’s where a lot of the fiber and nutrients are. So I love the prospect of someone making a cookie with pecan shell flour. These are all blue sky opportunities.  

Fries: There are many opinions about how central cultured meat will be to our diet over the coming years. What is your read? 

Zimberoff: It’s going to take quite a while for cultured meat to have any kind of noticeable presence on our plates. It’ll be the gourmets and investors who eat it, and journalists like me who get to try it. Chefs like Dominique Crenn will serve it at her three-Michelin-star restaurant, so you can guess who gets to eat there. My guess is it’ll take ten years before it’s much more present. 

We’ll see hybrids sooner. Last year I had a burger that was 20% cultured cells and 80% mushrooms and vegetables. It was delicious. But I don’t know what it tasted like without the cultured cells. For cultured meat to become more accepted, it has to become more transparent. That’s its biggest hurdle. My hope is that it goes through a lot more scrutiny. I want people to be looking at the American diet: if we’re supposed to be going more plant-based, cultured meats should never be center of the plate, right? Even if the companies say they can make them healthier.

Fries: You write that the people accessing New Foods tend to be elite consumers who have curiosity along with money to spare. Where are there opportunities for mainstreaming the best of these products?

Zimberoff: The biggest constraint is cost. Everyone talks about getting to price parity. But that supports an economy of cheap, industrialized food, that’s not necessarily good for us. If we’re talking about lentils, that’s fine; but if we’re talking about cultured meat – an industrialized, ultra-processed product – or plant-based burgers, this price parity means that we have to get it all cheap. That sets us up to fail. I want these companies to not have to worry about price so that they can make products that are healthier for me and for the planet. And by always having to achieve profits for their investors, then lowering the price so that everyone can afford it, they’re not focused on the right things. 

An opportunity is to look at early education about nutrition. The government needs to work on how we educate kids of all economic means so that they know how to eat healthy and for the climate. And we need a different form of government subsidies. These New Food companies need to offer foods at all prices, and Big Food needs to be penalized for just pumping out sugar-, fat-, and salt-filled crap. We have to do something differently, and New Foods represent that opportunity.

Fries: You’ve written a book that profiles a diverse set of players and perspectives. What are some of your own impressions coming out of that process?

Zimberoff: Personally, I’m eating for my health as the priority. But now I think more about how I’m eating for the climate. I’m already about 90% plant-based, and as a journalist I want to continue to eat everything and not be aligned to one diet. I’m constantly pushing myself to learn, always trying New Foods, and keeping my diet as varied as possible. I tell people to put something new in their basket every week. I’m always asking, “Can I do something different? Can I push myself?”. And that’s what I want for other people: I want them to be excited to know more about what they’re eating. I hope that I got that across in my book.

​​This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Larissa Zimberoff’s newsletter can be found here.

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