Soylent Green for dinner?

Medicine Drug Pills on PlateI find that there are few things that are more comforting than a tasty home-cooked meal. But cooking can take a fair amount of my time and energy, and requires that all the necessary ingredients on hand. Sometimes when I’m busy or tired or just feeling lazy, I wish there was a box of “people chow” in my cupboard that would make well-balanced and tasty meal, or perhaps a pill that could substitute for a satisfying dinner.

It’s not surprising that in the late 19th and early 20th century, when food preparation was much more labor intensive and time consuming than it is today, that writers who imagined scientifically advanced utopian societies of the future frequently described “instant” food that required no cooking.

The idea was common enough for writer Anna Bowman Dodd to satirize it in her 1887 novella The Republic of the Future, or, Socialism a reality:

The food is sent to us by electricity through the culinary conduits. Every thing is blown to us in a few minutes’ time, if it be necessary, if the food is to be eaten hot. If the food be cereals or condensed meats, it is sent by pneumatic express, done up in bottles or in pellets. All such food is carried about in one’s pocket. We take our food as we drink water, wherever we may happen to be, when it’s handy and when we need it.

Thus women were freed from the drudgery of the kitchen. Or as Dodd put it:

The perfecting of the woman movement was retarded for hundreds of years, as you know, doubtless, by the slavish desire of women to please their husbands by dressing and cooking to suit them. When the last pie was was made into the first pellet, woman’s true freedom began.

Dodd made it sound as if this would be a bad thing. But many thought that scientifically developed food substitutes would a positive development. At least in the first half of the 20th century, there were regular articles in the popular press about the “dream” of creating a meal in pill form.

And, of course, the pulp science fiction writers incorporated the idea into their stories.

By the way, have you folks eaten?”
“Not in a week,” said Karl.
“Von Sternberger’s food tablets,” informed the girl.
Carruthers nodded. His deep-set eyes regarded them appraisingly. “Any ill effects?”
“None whatever,” spoke Danzig. “Neither of us have the slightest craving for food.”
~ “Prisoners on the Electron” by Robert H. Leitfred (1930)

Sounds convenient, right? But here we are in the first part of the 21st century and most of us eat food that isn’t too far different from what people were eating a century ago.

So why don’t we have the equivalent of “Von Sternberger’s food tablets”? It turns out there are a number of reasons.

For one, we humans normally eat a wide variety of foods – a much wider variety than most other primates. A number of studies have shown that the diversity of foods we eat reflects the quality of our diet. Of course, that association is likely due at least in part to the link between poverty and a less diverse diet. Perhaps the lack of variety wouldn’t be a problem if scientists developed a food that met all human dietary requirements. It turns out not to be that simple.

We don’t actually yet know all the components that would make up an ideal human diet. For example, there are many compounds produced by plants – phytochemicals – that are thought to have anti-oxidant and other physiological properties. We are still learning what these compounds are and how they affect the human body, despite the bold claims of the dietary supplement sellers.

Another problem is humans have trouble eating the same food for every meal. Just imagine: there are 9 calories in one gram of fat, the most calorie-dense nutrient. That means you would need to eat a half pound of pure fat to get the 2000 calories burned daily by the average adult woman.  That’s a bare minimum, since balanced diets need to include less calorie-dense  components like proteins, carbohydrates and fiber.  While it’s not at all difficult to eat a pound (or more) of a tasty variety of foods per day, it’s harder to imagine happily swallowing a half pound of pills or eating a couple of pounds of not-particularly-tasty food pellets on a daily basis.

It’s not like people haven’t tried. A Canadian fellow named Adam Scott tried eating “monkey chow” for a week. At least in theory that diet should serve the nutritional requirements of most primates, including humans. The result? Scott lost weight, was tired and had serious cravings. While a diet of nutritious pellets might work as an alternative to Weight Watchers, it wouldn’t a very good replacement for human food. More seriously, even people who are malnourished have trouble eating enough food when the prescribed therapeutic diet is too monotonous.

And even if there is variety in our diet, food needs to taste good for humans to be healthy in both mind and body. For example, NASA has found that the “psychological well being” of astronauts depends at least in part on providing food that is tasty and has a “pleasant mouthfeel” . Because of that, NASA has moved away from the unappetizing food pastes and powders used to sustain astronauts on the Mercury missions, and worked on developing foods that the astronauts actually enjoy eating.

Naturally, science fiction has reflected many of those limitations.  In more recent SF stories, it’s more likely for mass-produced rations to be provided starving masses on resource-depleted and overpopulated Earth than to be eaten by the scientific or social elites.

All the TV shows have morale-builder commercials telling us how important our work is, how the whole world depends on us for food. It’s all true. They don’t have to keep reminding us. If we didn’t do what we do there would be hunger in Texas and kwashiorkor among the babies in Oregon. We all know that. We contribute five trillion calories a day to the world’s diet, half the protein ration for about a fifth of the global population. It all comes out of the yeasts and bacteria we grow off the Wyoming shale oil, along with parts of Utah and Colorado. The world needs that food.
~ Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)

Living on such food produced for basic sustenance, rather than for optimal health or pleasure, is a pretty bleak vision of the future.

Of course not all science fictional food is so unappetizing. In the resource-rich Star Trek universe, almost everyone can dine well on delicious synthetic food produced by replicators if they don’t want to cook for themselves.

Having access to a variety of food that tastes good, is nutritious and is available at the push of a button – that’s the future I’m hoping for.

Further reading:

• Paleo-Future’s “Meal in a pill” archives.

• Future Food section of David Szondy’s Tales of Future Past.

• NASA’s Space Food Fact Sheets and their Space Food and Nutrition site for students and educators.

• Cooper et al. “Developing the NASA Food System for Long-Duration Missions” J. Food Sci. 76(2):R40-R48 (2011) doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2010.01982.x

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