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Can Techies Improve Food?

Technology has improved our lives, whether through the creation of new tools or by upgrading existing ones. Taxis were okay, but Uber and similar car service apps make them better (and self-driving cars will improve upon car service further). Craigslist makes classified ads free and easier to access. E-readers save trees and let people store entire libraries in the palm of their hands. Whereas world travelers used to have to wait a month for their postcard to reach a recipient (with another month for the reply), emails sent from Bangalore to Boston arrive in milliseconds. And perhaps most importantly of all, knowledge has been democratized. You can read anything from almost any time period using a device that fits in your pocket. You can talk to people halfway across the world in real time. Without technology, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do on a daily basis. Using the tools created by tech enthusiasts, I can reach millions of people every day and millions of entrepreneurs are creating new lives for themselves and new services and tools for others.

But are there limits to technological progress? Can technology improve everything?

We’ll find out. There’s talk of a “food revolution” brewing in Silicon Valley, helmed by engineers and entrepreneurs convinced they can do food better than both nature and traditional agriculture.

There’s Soylent, the food replacement shake that promises to render home kitchens obsolete save for dedicated hobbyists and save millions of hours better spent working and “being productive.” They’ve raised over $20 million in venture capital funding and are taking orders for Soylent 2.0, due to ship in October.

There’s Hampton Creek, the food tech startup seeking to replace eggs with plant-based substitutes and make food healthier and safer “for everyone, everywhere.”

Now, I’m not one that thinks pre-made foods have absolutely no place in a Primal eating plan. There are some incredible food manufacturers doing some really useful and important things using only fresh ingredients. There’s Exo [1], whose cricket bars are raising awareness about how delicious and nutritious insects can be [2]. Heck, I’ve made my own foray into the food world with Primal Kitchen™ Mayo [3] and Primal Fuel [4]. In these cases what’s really provided is convenience without sacrificing quality or nutrition. And for most people these days, when time is so scarce, that’s genuinely worth something. I know that matters to me and I’m willing to pay a premium in many cases. But what’s important is that the food doesn’t suffer. That the quality is maintained. That nutritional compromises aren’t made. And that these foods remain adjuncts to an otherwise healthy diet.

The human brain is this planet’s ultimate technological innovation to date, and we’ve used it to improve food before. Watermelons were seedy, fibrous gourds [5] before we used breeding to expand and redden their edible placentas [6] to encompass the entire interior. The wild ancestor of corn, teosinte, contained only about a half dozen kernels [7] per ear, each covered in a stony, inedible casing. Wild bananas are riddled with seeds [8] and mostly inedible to humans. And generations of human intervention created the delicious, well-marbled wagyu breed of cattle [9]. Our ability to wring edibility out of harsh wild plants and unpredictable half-ton beasts with selective breeding has been a huge boon to us as a species.

But bananas, watermelons, corn and wagyu cattle are still complex biological systems. They are food, and we treat them like it. We’re not trying to break down, catalogue, and reduce them to their constituent parts, transforming them into something barely recognizable.

Should we really “optimize” food in this way? Can we?

Rob Rhinehart, the founder of Soylent, thinks so [10]:

Two years ago today I decided to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt. I theorized that food and the body were reducible and a novel foodstuff could be superior to that which was naturally occurring.

I’m very skeptical. In theory, we can recreate all the possible components of a given food — if we could only identify them. With the relatively infantile base of knowledge we currently possess, I don’t think any engineered food powder will contain all the micronutrients we get from real food.

Infant formula has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. They’ve introduced DHA, prebiotics [11], various specific nutrients like taurine, inositol, and choline, and played with the macronutrients to get it closer and closer to the real thing. Yet it’s still inferior to breast milk [12]. Now, some time out in the future, maybe we’ll finally pin it down. Maybe parents won’t have to take leave at all. They’ll just strap the kid to the android wetnurse, refill its lab-grown mammary sacs with optimized formula, and head straight back to work. Progress!

But you see my point, don’t you?

Every major time we’ve tried to engineer food, we’ve encountered unforeseen consequences.

Margarine was supposed to improve upon butter [13]. It was worse.

Vegetable oils [14] were supposed to improve upon animal fats [15]. They seemed awesome (cheaper, more profitable, “healthier”) but were worse.

Trans-fats [16] were supposed to replace saturated fats [17]. They looked good on paper but were way, way worse.

We can’t foresee what we don’t know. If we’re constructing our diets using isolated, reduced nutrients, we risk missing out on food-based nutrients we have yet to catalogue or whose importance we have yet to uncover. If we construct our diets using food, we get those unknown nutrients — even if we have no idea we’re consuming them.

Look at all the components that make up a simple banana [18]. People usually cite this image as a rejoinder to chemical scaremongering, but it also illustrates the folly of thinking we can engineer the perfect food by mixing together powdered grains and synthetic vitamins. That is a huge list of “ingredients” in a simple food. Does Soylent include every last component comprising the food it attempts to replace?

And even when it comes to what we do know about what’s in food, Soylent falls short (PDF [19]).

It’s got vitamin K1, not vitamin K2 [20]. The latter is the form that protects bone and heart health [21] and which is missing from most normal diets. You can convert K1 to K2 if you have the right gut bacteria [22], but I’m not sure eating Soylent will support that conversion.

It’s got vitamin D2, not D3. D3 is better-absorbed by humans than D2 [23].

It’s got soy protein [24], which makes for good vegan-friendly headlines but is of questionable nutritional worth when compared to whey protein [25], particularly in the context of resistance training [26] and weight loss [27].

It’s fairly low in protein and the protein isn’t of sufficient quality. You can get away with plant-based protein as long as you’re eating a lot of it and low protein intakes as long as it’s animal-based protein. But lower levels of plant-based protein may not be adequate for sedentary people, let alone active people.

Where’s the prebiotic fiber [28]? The latest (1.5) version of Soylent powder comes in at 3 grams of fiber per serving. Were it raw, the oat flour supplying the bulk of the carbs in Soylent would provide a good amount of resistant starch [29], but since they go rancid quickly the majority of oats on the market are heated.

It contains no phytochemicals beyond the ones found in the oat fiber/flour and soy protein components. Cocoa flavanols [30]? Nope. Blueberry anthocyanins [31]? None. The founder’s skeptical of their importance [32] in our diets, doubting most “humans in history were even getting broccoli and tomatoes.”

Broccoli [33] and tomatoes aren’t the only plants with phytochemicals. Every plant has them, and every human throughout history has consumed plants. Even historically low-plant food cultures like the Masai and the Inuit regularly consumed wild plants high in phytochemicals. The Masai cooked their meat with anti-parasitic spices, drank bitter (read: tannin- and polyphenol-rich) herb tea on a regular basis, and used dozens of plants as medicines (PDF [34]); the Inuit utilized a wide variety of phytochemical-rich plant foods [35] including berries, sea vegetables, lichens, and rhizomes. They also made tea from pine needles, which are high in vitamin C [36] and polyphenols [37].

In related news, Hampton Creek has promised to render eggs obsolete and replicate their gelling, emulsifying, and binding culinary properties using specialized textured pea proteins. They’ve got a cookie dough and mayonnaise on store shelves and hope to bring pancake batter and a realistic scrambled egg substitute to market. They talk big, touting their ever-growing in-house database of novel plant proteins they plan to use to emulate animal foods.

I get the motivation. Wanting to save the world is laudable. Trying to eliminate the need for cruel and destructive egg farming is a just cause. But from a health and nutrition standpoint, these aren’t the Eggs 2.0 they and their supporters are hoping.

Hampton Creek’s responses to these interview questions [38] are telling:

When asked about the status of the scrambled egg substitute and whether its nutritional profile was similar to that of actual eggs, they answered only the former (“hopefully by next summer”) and ignored the nutrition question.

In another answer, they reiterate that they’re “not focusing on the strict nutritional details at this time… so even if it is a little healthier, (e..g no cholesterol in your mayo) that is a start.” So that’s “healthier”: a lack of cholesterol. They’ve fallen into the same trap as the Soylent people — failing to realize that nonessential nutrients can still be beneficial. And the failure to mention the choline, vitamin A, DHA, folate, and biotin real eggs provide indicates that those nutrients will also be missing from the egg substitute.

Mostly, they don’t seem to care about the nutritional details. It’s about the environment, or humaneness, or cruelty. But for any food to be a worthwhile caloric source for humans, it must contain adequate micronutrition. If you’re going to replace a source of nutrition as complete as the humble egg, you’d better know what you’re doing.

Those are the two most egregious attempts at better feeding through technology, but they certainly won’t be the last. Again, I understand the sentiment behind both Soylent’s total meal replacement and Hampton Creek’s mock eggs. The techies may very well one day address the issues I’ve raised and the issues that arise in the future, and their current efforts may beat the standard American junk food diet (particularly if you throw in some colorful fruits and vegetables, a bit of liver, some raw potato starch, and maybe some whey protein), but they smack of hubris.

And when your stated goals are the replacement of the foods we’ve used for hundreds of thousands of years to fuel our brains and our cells and build enzymes and endogenous antioxidants and muscle tissue and grow new life inside our wombs, hubris doesn’t cut it.

But the potential micronutrition deficits aren’t even my major issue. My biggest qualm is that eating Soylent (even if it’s got every nutrient we require) or ditching real pastured eggs for some equi-nutritional glop that comes out of a carton and lasts for years in the fridge is missing the point of food. Food is supposed to taste good. It’s supposed to be chewed, savored, and shared with others. About the most depressing communal meal I can imagine is a bunch of 20/30-somethings sitting around together, staring into their smartphones, and sipping Soylent. Optimizing food is like optimizing sex; while I’m sure there’d be a few people interested in a pill or device that produced instant orgasms so they could get back to work, that’d be missing the point entirely. It’s the journey that makes the destination.

They’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. Is stocking the kitchen with Soylent a better option than ordering a bunch of pizzas and cokes for your engineers so that they can get back to work right away? Maybe, maybe not. But the vast majority of people look to food not just to sustain their health and provide the necessary calories, but also to bring pleasure to their lives. To create and maintain connections with our dining companions and to do what humans have been doing for millennia: creating, sharing, and enjoying meals made out of raw plants and animals with our own hands.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear from you down below. What’s your take on the techies’ attempts to optimize, improve, and replace real food?

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here [39].