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Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Crunchy!

One of my favorite topics is speculative agriculture, both science fiction and fantasy. What do people eat? Where does it come from? How is it grown? Answering those questions for a fictional milieu requires a wonderful mix of climate, trade, technology and culture. Sometimes there are real-world sources, like agricultural manuals or cookbooks from a particular time and place (for instance, this wonderful tenth-century agricultural calendar from Cordoba: not only when things happened, but what was important enough to be mentioned).

But this is “science in my fiction,” not “agriculture in my history.” So here’s a really interesting bit of science that if you’re a typical USian or European, you may never have thought about: bugs in space!

Yes, as food.

One of the many challenges that must be overcome if we’re going to leave this planet for extended periods is food. Raising food helps with supply chain problems, and has psychological benefits: would you want to live on preserved food and concentrates for years at a time? But there’s not likely to be room or time for meat animals (maybe fish eventually). So what about insects? They take minimal space and are extremely efficient at converting vegetable matter to protein.

Chinese research has concentrated on silkworms as a source of insect protein, but there are lots of other options, from mealworms to grasshoppers.

Eating insects could help out here on Earth too: raising insects to provide protein is enormously less resource-intensive than beef, pork or even chicken. It’s already an accepted part of the diet in many parts of the world. (And even squeamish Westerners eat plenty of insects in a year.)

Graphic of environmental costs of beef vs crickets

Can’t go into space but want to try eating insects yourself? There are plenty of prepared and packaged options.

Larvets packaged mealwork snacks

Sourdoughs of Space

lacto-bigI recently read Ferrett Steinmetz‘s short story “Sourdough Station” that as the title suggests involves a sauerkraut-making operation on a space station. That’s not all the story is about, of course, but it did get me thinking about food and fermentation and what that might mean to folks living in space.

Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and is high in vitamins, fiber, iron, folate and other nutrients.  Combine that with sauerkraut’s relatively long shelf life, and it seems like an ideal food for isolated outposts in space. Astronauts have already been experimenting with growing nappa cabbage and vegetables on the International Space Station, so it looks likely that growing leafy greens in space is within the realm of possibility. Assuming that the fermentation process works as well in space as it does on Earth, sauerkraut could become a space habitat staple as humans spread out among the stars. Or perhaps spacegoers would prefer something more like spicy Korean kimchi, since microgravity can dull the sense of taste.

Lactic acid bacteria  – primarily species of Lactobacillus – are not only involved in the process of fermenting sauerkraut and kimchi, but also the production of yogurt and cheese from milk, and making sourdough bread sour. But not any old microbe will do for optimal fermentation. Different species of bacteria are used in the production of different foods: Lactobacillus kimchii is a unique species found (naturally) in kimchi, Lactobacillus helveticus is used to ferment milk into swiss cheese, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus (discovered in the course of researching the longevity of Bulgarians) and Lactobacillus acidophilus are used in yogurt production, and Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis gives sourdough bread its sourness.

The different species and strains of bacteria vary in their biochemistry and so can significantly affect the flavor of the sauerkraut or yogurt or bread being produced. Often there are several different species of bacteria that are involved in the fermentation process. DNA analysis during the sauerkraut production process has found a number of different bacterial species present during the fermentation process. There may be an entire ecosystem of microbes in every fermentation pot.

So why is this important to my hypothetical sauerkraut-eating spacefarers of the future?

Even assuming there are no technical issues with designing safe fermentation vessels or growing vegetables to ferment, culturing the necessary microbes might turn out to be a challenge.

8344600413_0dd3a38dba_mEven under optimal conditions of temperature and humidity, space stations are unlikely to have gravity equal to that on Earth and that can affect bacterial growth. For example,  Lactobacillus acidophilus has been shown to grow more quickly in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.

It’s not a stretch to wonder whether new strains of bacteria will have to be developed – or perhaps will arise naturally – for the production of deliciously fermented food in space. It wouldn’t be that far different from the development of new strains of yeast that revolutionized the brewing industry here on Earth.

But the fact that the background radiation levels on a space station or spaceship could be significantly higher than that on Earth could significantly raise the mutation rate in bacteria onboard, and there is always a risk that such mutations could render otherwise harmless bacteria dangerous. And even harmless bacteria could harbor mutations that modify their metabolism in such a way that it affects the fermentation process or the flavor of the fermented product.

At the turn of the 20th century Alaskan gold rush old-timers were known as Sourdoughs because they were reputed to protect their sourdough cultures during Arctic winters by keeping lumps of dough warm with their bodies. Spacefarers would similarly have to carefully protect and maintain any bacterial cultures used in food production.

I can imagine humans spread through our solar system and beyond, with different space colonies developing their own special fermentation cultures. Freeze-dried microbes would be easy to carry and trade, perhaps helping form the basis of a space culture barter system. They could be known for this, perhaps becoming the Sourdoughs of space*. They probably wouldn’t be so grizzled (or as nearly exclusively male) as the Yukon prospectors of a century ago, but like the original Sourdoughs would be living in an environment hostile to humans and they would known for the products of those precious microbes they maintained.

Since food plays such an important role in human culture, I like to think that’s how we’ll refer to ourselves.

Or maybe I’m just hungry …

Top image: Fermented foods made with lactic acid producing bacteria. From “Genomic comparison of lactic acid  bacterial published“, DOE Joint Genome Institute.

Bottom image: Lactobacillus casei uploaded by AJ Cann (AJC1) on Flickr and shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Sleeping Fiction

Photo by Kay T. Holt

In science fiction, sleep is a pastime. For the sake of continuity, characters are put into suspended animation so the reader can travel with them across vast expanses with neither suffering catastrophic ennui. Sure, sleep facilitates other things, too – vivid dreamers communicate with aliens and sleep-deprived characters make every kind of mischief sooner or later – but SF is really big on sleeping beauties.

Which is a shame, when you think about it. Sleep itself is in many ways still a frontier. We have some interesting ideas about sleep and learning, problem-solving, fat, food, puberty, immunity, blood pressure, loneliness… Name anything to do with the body, and it appears to be affected by sleep in one way or many, yet SF largely neglects to explore sleep past its nearest and most familiar boundaries.

Returning to the idea of character continuity; even that tired old plot device has been only superficially explored. What if the brain activity while we sleep is the process by which we maintain our personal continuity from day to day? How might suspending that activity for the duration of long spaceflights disrupt our capacities or even our identities? Or, if sleep-state brain activity is somehow maintained during suspended animation, wouldn’t the brain develop physiological changes over time? If so, how would they present in terms of behavior?

There are an abundance of dimensions of sleep still open for speculation. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to navigate a few of them with my eyes closed. But what about the reader? What interesting treatments of sleep have you found in SF? And what other interesting biological phenomena would you like to see better explored in fiction?

A Recipe for Sentience: The Energetics of Intelligence

“No man can be wise on an empty stomach.”

- Mary Anne Evans, under the pseudonym George Eliot

 

We humans have been suffering from a bit of a self-image problem for the last half century.

First we were Man the Tool-Maker, with our ability to reshape natural objects to serve a purpose acting to  separate us from the brute beasts.  This image was rudely shattered by Jane Goodall’s discovery in the 1960s that chimpanzees also craft and use tools, such as stripping leaves from a twig to fish termites out of their nest to eat, or using the spine of an oil palm frond as a pestle to pulverize the nutritious tree pulp.

Then we were Man the Hunter.  We’d lost our tool-making uniqueness but we still had our ability to kill, dismember, and eat much larger animals with even simple tools, and it was thought that this ability unlocked enough energy in our diet to fuel the growth of larger body size and larger brains1.  This idea rather famously bled into popular culture and science fiction of the time, such as the opening to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  However, we would later find out that although it is not a large component of the diet, chimpanzees eat enough meat to act as significant predators on other primates in their forest homes.  We would also find out that the bone piles we had once attributed to our ancestors belonged to ancient savannah predators, and that the whole reason hominid bones showed up in the assemblage at all is because we were occasionally lunch.

So meat eating by itself doesn’t seem to make us as distinct from our closest living relatives as we had previously thought, and the argument of what makes us special has since moved on to language.  That does leave a standing question, though: if it wasn’t meat-eating that allowed us to get bigger and more intelligent, what was it?

While there is evidence in the fossil record that eating raw meat allowed humans to gain more size and intelligence, it is both unlikely that we were the hunters and that this behavioral change was enough to unlock a significant jump in brain size.  Instead, there is another hypothesis and human identity that has been gaining more traction as of late: the concept of Man the Cooking Animal, the only animal on Earth that can no longer survive on a diet of raw food because of the energy demands of its enormous brain2.

Napoleon is famously said to have declared that an army marches on its stomach (at least, after what may be a loose translation).  That is, the power of an army is limited by the amount of food that a society can divert to it.  What we have come to realize more recently is that this same limitation exists inside the body, be it human, animal, or speculative alien species.  No matter what the diet, a creature will only have a fixed amount of energy available to divert to activities such as maintaining a warm-blooded body temperature (homeothermy), digestion, reproduction, and the growth and maintenance of tissues.  We can track some of these changes in the human line in the fossil record, but others must at best be more speculative due to the difficulty of preserving evidence of behavioral changes (which of course, do not fossilize) as well as limited research on modern examples.  We’ll start by looking at the evolutionary pathway of humans to see what information is currently available.

 

 The Woodland Ape and the Handy Man

 

Size comparison of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo sapiens (by Carl Buell)

Some of the oldest human ancestors that we can unequivocally identify as part of our line lie in the genus Australopithecus.  These have been identified by some authors as woodland apes, to distinguish these more dryland inhabitants from the forest apes that survive today in Africa’s jungles (chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas).  They are much smaller than a modern human, only as tall as a child, but they have already evolved to walk upright.  They still show adaptations for climbing that were lost in later species, suggesting they probably escaped into the trees at night to avoid ground predators, as modern chimps do.  Their brains were not much larger than a modern chimpanzee’s, and their teeth are very heavy, even pig-like, as an adaptation to a tough diet of fibrous plant material – probably roots, tubers, and corms, perhaps dug from plants growing at the water’s edge2,3.

The hominids thought to have first started eating meat are Homo habilis, the “handy man”, and the distinction between them and the older Australopithecus group from which they descended are not very large.  The two are close enough that Homo habilis has been suggested it might be more properly renamed to Australopithecus habilis, while the interspecies variation suggests to some researchers that what we now call habilis may represent more than one species4Whatever its proper taxonomic designation, H. habilis shows a modest increase in brain size and evidence that it was using simple stone tools to butcher large mammals, probably those left behind by the many carnivorous mammals that lived on the savannahs and woodlands alongside it.

The transition between H. habilis and H. erectus is far more distinctive, with a reduction in tooth size, jaw size, and gut size, and an increase in brain volume.  They are also believed to have been larger, but the small number of available hominid fossils makes this difficult to verify.  H. erectus is also the first human to have been found outside of Africa.  While the habilis-erectus split has been attributed to the eating of significant amounts of meat in the Man-the-Hunter scenario (recall that habilis, despite its tool-using ability for deconstructing large animals, does not appear to have hunted them), the anthropologist Richard Wrangham has suggested that the turnover instead indicates the first place at which humans began to cook2,3.  Because the oldest solid evidence of cooking is far younger than the oldest known fossils of erectus, what follows is largely based on linking scraps of evidence from modern humans and ancient fossils using what is known as the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis.

 

 Brains versus Guts: The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis

 The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis was first proposed by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler in 19955, and it goes something like this.  Large brains evolve in creatures that live in groups because intelligence is important to creating and maintaining the social groups.  This is known as the social brain hypothesis, and it helps to explain why animals that live socially have larger brains than their more solitary relatives.  However, not all social primates, or even social animals, have particularly large brains.  Horses, for example, are social animals not known for their excessively large brain capacity, and much the same can be said for lemurs.  Meanwhile, apes have larger brains than most monkeys.  This can’t be accounted for purely by the social brain hypothesis, since by itself it would suggest that all social primates and perhaps all social animals should have very big brains, rather than the variation we see between species and groups.  What does account for the difference is the size of the gut and, by extension, the quality of the diet.

Both brains and guts fit the bill for expensive body tissues.  In humans, the brain uses about 20% of the energy we expend while resting (the basal metabolic rate, or BMR) to feed an organ that only makes up 2.5% of our body weight2.  This number goes down in species with smaller brains, but it is still disproportionately high in social, big-brained animals.  Aiello and Wheeler note that one way to get around this lockstep rule is to increase the metabolic requirements of the species5 (i.e., throw more calories at the problem), but humans don’t do this, and neither do other great apes.  Our metabolic rates are exactly what one would expect for primates of our size.  The only other route is to decrease the energy flow to other tissues, and among the social primates only the gut tissue shows substantial variation in its proportion of body weight.  In fact, the correlation between smaller guts and larger brains lined up quite well in the data then available for monkeys, gibbons, and humans5.  Monkeys and other animals that feed on low-quality diets containing significant amount of indigestible fibers or dangerous plant toxins have very large guts to handle the problem and must expend a significant amount of their BMR on digestion, and have less extra energy to shunt to operate a large brain.  Fruit-eating primates such as chimpanzees and spider monkeys have smaller guts to handle their more easily-digested food, and so have larger brains.  Humans spend the least amount of time eating of any living primate, with equally short digestion times as food speeds through a relatively small gut.  And ours, of course, are the largest brains of all2.

These tradeoffs are not hard-linked to intestinal or brain size, and have been demonstrated in other species.  For example, there is a South American fish species with a tiny gut that uses most of its energy intake to power a surprisingly large brain, while birds with smaller guts often use the energy savings not to build larger brains, but larger, stronger wing muscles2.  Similarly, muscle mass could be shed instead of gut mass to grow a larger brain or to cut overall energy costs.  The latter strategy is the one taken up by tree-dwelling sloths to survive on a very poor diet of tough, phytotoxin-rich leaves, and although it makes them move like rusty wind-up toys it also allows them to live on lower-quality food than most leaf-eating mammals.

Modern humans have, to a degree, taken this approach as well.  When compared to one of our last surviving relatives, H. neanderthalensis, humans have a skeletal structure that paleontologists describe as “gracile:” light bones for our body size, anchoring smaller muscles than our shorter, heavier relatives.  Lower muscle and bone mass in H. sapiens gives us an average energy cost on the order of 1720 calories a day for males and 1400 calories a day for females in modern cold-adapted populations, which are thought to have similar metabolic adaptations for cold weather as the as extinct Neanderthals.  By contrast, H. neanderthalis has been estimated to need 4000-7000 calories a day for males and 3000-5000 calories for females, with the higher costs reflecting the colder winter months6.

 

Cooked versus Raw

 

Tribe of Homo erectus cooking with fire (from sciencephoto.com)

At the point where human brain size first increases dramatically (H. erectus, as you might recall), both guts and teeth reduce significantly while the brain increases.  The expensive tissue hypothesis explains the tradeoff between guts and brains, but cooking provides a possible explanation for how both the teeth and the guts could reduce so significantly while still feeding a big brain.

Data on the energetics of cooked food are currently limited, but the experiments that have been performed so far indicate that the softer and more processed the food the more net calories are extracted, since less calories need to be spent on digestion.  A Japanese experiment with rats showed that they gained more weight on laboratory blocks that had been puffed up like a breakfast cereal versus rats on normal blocks, even though the total calories in the food were the same and the rats spent the same amount of energy on exercise2.  Similarly, experiments with pythons show that they expend about 12% more energy breaking down whole meat than either meat that has been cooked or meat that has been finely ground.  The two treatments reduce energy cost independently of each other, meaning that snakes fed ground, cooked meat used almost 24% less energy than pythons fed whole raw meat or rats2.

There is even less data on how humans utilize cooked food versus raw food.  Because it only recently occurred to us that we might not be able to eat raw food diets like other animals, only a few studies exist.  So far the most extensive is the Giessen Raw Food study performed in Germany, which used questionnaires to collect data from 513 raw foodists in Germany who eat anywhere from a 75% to 100% raw food diet.  The data are startling.  Modern humans appear to do extremely poorly on diets that our close relatives, the forest apes, would get sleek and fat on.  Body weights fall dramatically when we eat a significant amount of raw food, to the point where almost a third of those eating nothing but raw had body weights suggesting chronic energy deficiency.  About half of the women on total raw food diets had so little energy to spare that they had completely ceased to menstruate, and 10% had such irregular cycles that they were likely to be completely unable to conceive at their current energy levels2.   Mind you, these are  modern first-world people with the advantage of high-tech processing equipment to reduce the energy cost of eating whole foods, far less energy expenditure required to gather that food, and a cornucopia of modern domestic plants that have been selectively bred to produce larger fruits and vegetables with and lower fiber and toxin contents than their wild counterparts.  The outcome looks more dismal for a theoretical raw-food-eating human ancestor living  before the dawn of civilization and supermarkets.

 

Fantastic Implications

What this all ultimately suggests is that there are tradeoffs in the bodies of intelligent creatures that we may not have given much consideration: namely, that to build a bigger brain you either need a much higher level of caloric intake and burn (high BMR) or the size and energy costs in something in the body have to give.  Certain organs do not appear to have much wiggle room for size reduction, as Aiello and Wheeler discovered; hearts for warm-blooded organisms need to be a certain size to provide enough blood throughout the body, and similarly lungs must be a particular size to provide enough surface area for oxygen to diffuse into the blood.  However, gut size can fluctuate dramatically depending on the requirements of the diet, and musculature can also reduce to cut energy costs.

Humans seem to have done an end-run around some of the energy constraints of digestion by letting the cultural behaviors of cooking and processing do the work for them, freeing up energy for increased brain size following social brain hypothesis patterns.  This is pretty classic human adaptive behavior, the same thing that lets us live in environments ranging from arctic to deep desert, and should therefore not come as a great surprise.  It does, however, give us something to think about when building intelligent races from whole cloth: what energy constraints would they run up against, and assuming they didn’t take the human path of supplanting biological evolution with culture, how would they then get around them?

You're going to need to cook that first. (From http://final-girl.tumblr.com/)

Fantasy monsters and evil humanoids in stories tend to be described as larger and stronger than humans (sometimes quite significantly so) and as raw meat eaters, particularly of humanoid meat.  There’s a good psychological reason for doing so – both of these characteristics tap into ancient fears, one of the time period not so long ago when humans could end up as prey for large mammalian predators, and the other a deep-seated terror of cannibalism without a heavy dose of ritualism to keep it in check.  However, both the Neanderthal example and the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis suggest that such a species would be very difficult to produce; there’s a very good reason why large mammalian predators, whatever their intelligence level, are rare.  It wouldn’t be a large shift, however, to take a monstrous race and model them after a hybrid of Neanderthal and grizzly bear, making them omnivores that can supplement their favored meat diet with plant foods and use cooking to reduce the energy costs of digestion.  Or perhaps their high caloric needs and obligate carnivory could become a plot point, driving them to be highly expansionistic simply in order to keep their people fed, and to view anything not of their own race as a potential meal.

On the science fiction front, it presents limitations that should be kept in mind for any sapient alien.  To build a large brain, either body mass has to give somewhere (muscle, bone, guts) or the caloric intake needs to increase to keep pace with the higher energy costs.  Perhaps an alien race more intelligent than humans would be able to do so by becoming even more gracile, with fragile bones and muscles that may work on a slightly smaller, lower-gravity planet.  Or perhaps they reduce their energy needs by being an aquatic race, since animals that swim generally use a lower energy budget for locomotion than animals that fly or run7.

From such a core idea, whole worlds can be spun: low-gravity planets that demand less energy for terrestrial locomotion; great undersea empires in either a fantastic or an alien setting, where water buoys the body and reduces energy costs enough for sapience; or creatures driven by hunger and a decidedly human propensity for expansion that spread, locust-like, across continents, much as we did long ago when we first left our African cradle.

Food for thought, indeed.

 

References

1.  Stanford, C.B.,  2001.  The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior.   Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

2. Wrangham, R., 2009.  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. —-, 2001.  “Out of the Pan, into the fire:  from ape to human. ”  Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell us About Human Social Evolution.  Ed.  F.B.M. de Waal.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.   119-143.

4. Miller, J.A., 1991.  “Does brain size variability provide evidence of multiple species in Homo habilis?”  American Journal of Physical Anthropology 84(4): 385-398.

5. Aiello, L.C. and P. Wheeler, 1995.  “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution.”  Current Anthropology 36(2): 199-221.

6. Snodgrass, J.J., and W.R. Leonard, 2009.  “Neanderthal Energetics Revisited: Insights into Population Dynamics and Life History Evolution.”  PaleoAnthropology 2009: 220-237.

7. Schmidt-Nielsen, K., 1972.  “Locomotion: Energy cost of swimming, flying, and running.”  Science 177: 222-228.

 

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

Photo by epSos.de on Flickr

Cooking Pasta on Mars

Fact: Humans need food and water to survive. On Earth as in space. Yet you don’t often find talks of food in science fiction – a passing mention at best and pills are often used – while finding and preparing food in space or, worse, on another planet would present rather a crucial challenge to explorers.

Space food has made a lot of progress since the dry freeze stuff they used to feed the Apollo guys with but food on board the International Space Station (ISS) still has to come largely out of pre-cooked/frozen microwaveable meals in pouches that can be sucked at, for reasons of microgravity. Chefs have been called upon to prepare Christmas or New Year’s Eve special meals for the Station but they still come mostly in that easy to eat format. Some adventurous astronauts do try cooking – most of them are scientists to some degree or another so enjoy twisting their brains over a problem – but the experiment is still not part of their daily exercise problem, possibly because they do have easy access to supplies from Earth. And yet cooking in space presents a real challenge and one that must be tackled for human exploration missions.

So you send your heroes on a deep space mission. Far away from home and its comfort. What could be better for the soul – and stomach – than the perfect dish of pasta?
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