Why the future of food tastes like a mealworm

Why the future of food tastes like a mealworm

A chili-lime mealworm was not my first pick for a snack, but it turned out to be quite delicious. Not to mention food for thought.

The worms (really insect larvae) were prepared by a San Francisco-based edible insect street food startup, Don Bugito. Crunchy, salty, spicy and with a hint of lime, the mealworm reminded me somewhat of a tortilla chip that might be an excellent topping to a taco or salad.

My worm-eating experience took place as part of an investigation into the future of food technology, a topic of GreenBiz Group’s upcoming VERGE San Francisco event. VERGE focuses on the technologies and systems that accelerate sustainability solutions in a climate-constrained world.

One of VERGE’s six tracks is dedicated to food and water systems. It explores the new production and delivery systems leading to innovative products and services that address supply-chain risk and resilience, from precision irrigation to alternative protein sources. Among the questions we’ll address are, what is the appropriate role of technology in food systems and how will it shape the way we eat?

Which brings me to the VERGE FoodTech SnackDown, a tasting of some alternative food sources being developed by entrepreneurs. Chili-lime mealworms, for example.

Feeding the world is a hot topic these days. By 2050, world population is expected to peak at 9.6 billion. Producing the recommended 2,000 calories per day for each person adds up to an enormous demand for food, along with the land, energy and water needed to produce it. If you need a visual of all those calories, picture nearly 13 billion Chipotle burritos with guacamole.

Producing all these calories imposes major costs to our wallets, the environment and animal welfare. Throw in climate change, which in addition to increasing floods and droughts is expected to shift the latitudes where food can be easily grown. It won't be easy to fill all those bellies.

However, it’s also a supersized business opportunity.

Planning for the SnackDown has led me to a succession of forward-thinking food entrepreneurs developing alternatives for eggs, meat, oil and other things. Some substitute meat with insects, a concept new to most Americans, though not to the rest of the world. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 1,000 insects are eaten around the world, in 80 percent of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.

It’s not just insects. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, everything from algae to common plants are fodder for our dinner tables. Here are some next-gen foods that could be headed for your palate:

In-Vitro meat: Mark Post, team lead of Cultured Beef, is the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger. Post believes that humans are designed to love meat, but that “cows are an obsolete technology,” considering it costs $65.57 to produce just 1 kilogram of beef and that livestock is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Post sees cultured meat, made by humanely harvesting living muscle tissue from a cow and multiplying the cells, as an alternative to eating animals. At a recent panel titled “Alternative Proteins, Alternative Futures” at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in San Francisco, Post mentioned he is working to perfect the taste and bring down the costs of Cultured Beef’s $320,000 burger — that’s roughly how much the company has spent on R&D — and is confident that an affordable product is achievable within the next seven years.

Insects: High in protein, inexpensive to raise, less susceptible to climate shifts and tasty if thoughtfully prepared, insects are becoming more appreciated as a food source. Insects are delicacies in countries such as Mexico and China, but in the past they have entered American diets only as a passing trend rather then a staple food source. Those at the forefront of changing that include John Heylin, founder of Chirp Farms, who thinks it’s possible to make insects palatable by partially integrating them into commonplace foods, such as bread — along with good marketing strategies, of course. Other insect companies to watch include Six FoodsBitty FoodsDon Bugito and Exo.

Plant-based alternativesHampton Creek, maker of a plant-based egg, recently announced plans to launch its eggless Just Mayo in Target stores across the U.S. Plant-based foods are a cheaper, climate-friendlier, vegetarian and non-allergenic animal product replacement. Solazyme’s AlgaVia Whole Algal Flour replaces egg and dairy products with alternatives made from algae, a resource that is inexpensive to grow at scale. Beyond Meat and Sweet Earth Natural Foods are two other producers of meat alternatives worth checking out.

Coffee Flour, protein-packed flour made from discarded coffee pulp, is also set for its commercial release in 2015.

Hungry for more? Several of these companies will participate in the FoodTech SnackDown at VERGE San Francisco in October. Come get a taste of the future of food.

Top image: Fried mealworms at a Thai food stand, by apple2499.