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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

I know we've hunted sources of food into extinction. The authors devote a chapter entitled Culinary Extinction to the topic in a fascinating book I've just finished; Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human. They hypothesize that our early ancestors, the Clovis people, found mastodon and mammoth meat irresistible - especially the ribs, neck, and feet - to the point of killing off these titanic beasts in spite of themselves, while sparing other, less tasty species.

Passenger pigeons that roamed the skies of the North American continent by the billions at one time were felled for sport, stews, and pies with such relish that the birds were wiped out by 1900.

I didn't think about how our more recent consumption habits (that rely on husbandry and agriculture, not spearheads or shotguns) could be endangering food species from across the kingdoms of life until I read about the Museum of Endangered Foods.

This is a provocative project from a creative agency in Spain called Sharp & Sour. What's on display in these virtual museum exhibits? Some of our most basic and loved foods. Staples like potatoes, fish (broadly), peanuts, chickpeas, soy, coffee, bananas and honey. Chocolate and wine too. The common threat to these endangered foods is climate change. You've likely heard about the plight of the honeybee. Legumes need moist soil for a long growing season, so they won't fare well in the increasingly irregular rainfall patterns around the globe. Potato diversity is at risk because of the drying out of land. We could lose a quarter of current potato species. Bananas and coffee beans are under threat from rising temperatures and from fungi spurred on by global warming. Grapes are finicky. Grapes need the right balance of hot and cold days. Balance is not in the forecast. Avocado is on the list too. The avocado is a delicate tree that siphons too much water (as does the cacao tree) to be viable, especially as it grows in popularity. I just read that we had a record monthly shipments of avocados in January, up 33%. Per capita consumption in the US has doubled since 2010 to 8.5 pounds per year, per a Rabobank study.

With all the shop talk about the growth and potential of alternative proteins, and real world, pop culture alternatives to beef on the shelf and on fast food menus you might think we could or should guesstimate an extinction date for beef. That maybe the folks curating this museum of endangered foods could provoke us even further with a picture of hanging carcasses in a meat locker with a paragraph full of optimism as a counterpoint to the climate change cautionary tale captions around the avocado and the rest.

That would be premature. The hype around beef alternatives can lead some to overstate our willingness to give up beef, and meat in general. Beef consumption has been inching up recently and is projected to grow, not decline, in the near future anyway.

There are different forces pushing and pulling on beef consumption. I came across an interesting one the other day. Epicurious, one of the largest recipe sites in the US, stopped publishing new beef recipes, quietly in 2020, then quite emphatically earlier this year. The Epicurious editors make the case that beef takes too big a toll on the environment to continue to support its consumption through recipes, articles, and newsletters. This stance in support of sustainability, from a taste-making force in our food culture, will not single-handedly change attitudes but, to me, does signal a shift that will have a long-term effect. But, trying, adopting, sharing, and re-sharing recipes is a slow-moving current of change.

Epicurious says no one has complained about discovering vegetarian and meatless recipes instead of new, beef-centered ones. We may be turning the corner, or at least putting a periscope around the corner to see what might be on the other side of carnivorism.

Also, there are folks bringing food species back from the brink. A few months ago I spoke with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, the company he founded more than twenty years ago, whose mission is to make available free seeds to those who wish to recapture the flavors and textures of long lost grains and legumes once grown in the South. He explained to me how the Carolina rice system was the backbone of agriculture from coastal Maryland all the way down to Florida until the Civil War, and how this polyculture system built on rice and legumes grown together, was all but stamped out by Jim Crow. By some estimates, he told me, one third of all crop species cultivated in the South were lost by the Great Depression. Anson Mills has brought back things like Carolina gold rice, Sea Island red peas, grits and hominy from Antebellum heirloom corn, and benne, a plant with culinary and medicinal purposes. They sell benne seeds (from which our sesame seeds descend) and bennecake flour, but I sampled Carolina gold rice, preparing it as Glenn suggested by not letting the rice absorb all the water and drying it out in the oven. It was awesome. Nutty in its own way. And luscious like ice cream. Let's not let this rice become endangered again.

On the one hand, humans are nothing if not adaptable. We can learn to eat a very wide variety of foods. If we lose one species as a food source we can turn to another for fuel, and even learn to love it. In some sense, maybe mostly a poetic one, we are biologically primed to adapt to new tastes and textures in that the cells in our tastebuds are renewed every 9 to 15 days.

On the other hand, 2050 is the projected extinction date for most of the foods in the Museum of Endangered Foods, though the last bottle of wine will be bottled in 2100. 2050 is just two generations removed. What is a good substitute for all we do with potatoes and bananas? How about coffee? There is nothing like chocolate.

Here's a thought experiment for you. What are the alternatives to the alternatives being used to mimic meat? The most often used meat protein replacement right now is soy. What if there's no soy by 2050? Legumes are good meat substitutes too, and they are also threatened.

So, what are we going to eat by the end of the century? The indestructible cockroach, heat-loving algae and primordial fungi? Insects, seaweed, mushrooms, fermenting bacteria. THIS is where food start-up investment is going.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Phospholipids? Sounds like something measured in a blood test. A marker of cardiovascular health. A number that should be - cross your fingers - low. The "phospho" root prefix got me thinking, though, that maybe it's something you want more of. A mineral and a fat. Maybe a nutrient that lubricates the synapses.

According to a food ingredient supplier promoting them in a recent Food Dive article, milk phospholipids are brain food. Phospholipids naturally occur in milk fat and apparently have been shown to help people manage stress response, stay positive, and stay focused, if consumed on a regular basis.

Milk phospholipids are an example of the latest functional ingredients food developers can work into food and beverage formulas so that these products do more than fill you up or slake your thirst. Nootropics: substances that are supposed to improve cognitive function. "Smart drugs" to enhance memory, creativity, and motivation.

Nootropics are turning up everywhere, from the supplement section to the beverage aisle. During some recent work I came across a new chocolate bar brand called Eat Gold that features adaptogens (active stress relievers) and nootropics. Eating the Create Magic variety is meant to pump up your power to produce, with the help of matcha powder, lion's mane, and citicoline. Eat Gold is promising treasure; decadence and genius in a tin foil-wrapped tablet.

But hasn't brain food been around for a while?

We were told growing up that fish is brain food, this before fish oils, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, were identified, at least in the popular press, as the reason we should not pinch our noses in the presence of a plate of fish. Most fish is just too fishy for Americans, though, so we're happy to ingest capsules of fish oil instead.

But you don't have take a pill to feed your brain. I've read that cooked food is brain food, in a way. Richard Wrangham, in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, makes a pretty compelling case that our brains grew disproportionately after we tamed fire enough to build the first, crude ovens. Cooked food contains more calories and brains burn through calories more than any other organ in our body. Heat denatures protein and gelatinizes carbohydrates which softens up food and releases energy locked in raw food. Dr. Wrangham points to how Homo Sapiens mouth openings and teeth are comparatively smaller than those of other primates. And our jaws are not nearly as strong. All the more to chew on softer food softened by cooking. Our lower intestines are only half the size you'd expect given our size because humans don't have to break down the tough, uncooked vegetation gorillas do, for example. According to Dr. Wrangham, we spend only 5% of our day chewing whereas great apes spend 15%. Time freed up to develop our brains to do all sorts of other stuff.

The pursuit of particularly delicious food is the hallmark of an animal brain with higher cognitive skills, according to Rob Dunn, professor in the Applied Ecology department at NC State. I listened to a fascinating virtual lecture by Dr. Dunn promoting a new book he's co-authored with Monica Sanchez called Delicious - the evolution of flavor and how it made us human. He explained how chimpanzees use tools to patiently harvest foods they seem to relish, like honey, nuts, algae, and termites. Chimps snack on easy-to-get food they need for some nourishment, but over evolutionary time, they have learned to fashion sticks to fish ants out of mounds, beat honeybee nests, and dip for water, and are willing to take the time and extra effort for delicious stuff. Our cognitive skills evolved, and sharpened, like that of our primate cousins, to devise ways to get at food that our senses confirmed gave us pleasure. Tasty food is sort then of brain food too.

I might argue that almost everything we eat is brain food. Ask any of the one billion people enduring the final dog days of the fasting month right now. No food or drink can pass your lips between dawn and dusk for twenty-eight days. An hour or two before breaking the fast, especially when Ramadan crawls through the longest days of the summer, there is no question that you are not quite yourself. All of your body's cells start to crave replenishment, sending urgent messages up and down your spine, but it's the brain cells that are worst off. You want to shake off a headache, or break the spell of a bad mood, or marshal your scattered focus, and you can't. On top of that, there's sort of an addiction to eating throughout the day, in daylight, whatever your routine is. That habit gets broken during the fasting month. You, this fasting soul are left tapping fingers and toes in anticipation of sustenance, and the return to a semblance of yourself. Whatever passes your lips a few minutes after the sun sets is brain food. The first few spoonfuls of a hearty soup splashing through your mouth and gullet bring a smile and a warm head rush before the food reaches your stomach.

Almost anything can be brain food, but the prospect of a fabricated, concentrated super food or ingredient that makes you smarter, that maybe gives you an edge, is tantalizing to consumers and food makers.

The Food Dive article cites research showing that the global functional food market was valued at $173 billion in 2019 and is expected to get to $309 billion by 2027. According to Google trends, 'brain food' searches have grown by more than 300% in 2020 compared with 2019.

The drumbeat driving brain food is thrumming louder. This week Pepsico launched a sparkling water with functional ingredients called Soulboost. What a heady promise. The Blueberry Pomegranate variety is said to improve mental stamina with the help of 200 mg of panax ginseng. The Coca-Cola company cannot be far behind.

Back to the white paper on phospholipids. A key selling point is that this ingredient can be mixed into a range of foods, like dough and granola bars because it doesn't spoil the taste the way other functional ingredients can. A stealth ingredient to trick our palates and minds.

Phospholipids and other neutral-tasting functional ingredients serve our need to stay on top of our game. We have also developed, I think, a need to course-correct ourselves every so often with, say, a daily cup of coffee or probiotic yogurt, so a fair number of us will reach for a boosted sparkling water or smart energy bar.

In addition to the phospholipid nootropic, though, consider the proverbial warm glass of milk from which it is derived. And a homespun, wholesome, whole food peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich on oat nut whole grain bread to go along with it. I made these brain food sandwiches for my kids this week to help them outlast their marathon exams. To master Calculus, Biology, and Human Geography, for those three hours anyway.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

There's a mad rush in the world of making food to make "fake" food that claims to be just as good, or better in some ways than the real thing. A lot of venture capital is being put behind food start-ups seeking to manufacture food from some essence of the real thing. The target of these substitutes is animal-based food. Red meat. Poultry. Seafood. Dairy. Eggs. With the right line of animal tissue cells, a medium to propagate these cells into recognizable, edible stuff - a big enough bioreactor - there is growing evidence that cultivated beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, tuna, shrimp, and salmon can be made and commercialized. The chief executive of Aleph Farms, suggested recently that their 3-D bioprinted ribeye steak may be approved for sale as early as the back half of 2022.

Some food makers are only taking inspiration from what can be harvested from nature, with a few processing steps, like a beef burger. It turns out it's not so impossible to make a believable, more than palatable burger from soy and soy derivatives, coconut and sunflower oil, potato protein, and synthetic heme instead of feedlot-corn-fed ground chuck, marbled with fat and bursting with real, meaty heme. Synthetic heme is genetically modified yeast that's been fermented. The aim is for us to exchange animal-based food with plant-based food that looks like, smells like, and eats like what we've been used to eating since we started cooking food tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I just finished a project on meat substitutes. In addition to burgers, there are plant-based sausages, breakfast links and bacon. Nuggets and tenders. Deli slices. Even a veggie roast. And a range of seafood lookalikes. I've also read about cheese that's made from non-dairy protein and fat that's not fat. The list is growing.

What about bee-less honey? It's a thing. Or it might be a thing as early as next year. MeliBio is working on replicating the process of converting nectar into honey using bioengineering, precision fermentation, and plant science. The idea is to co-opt and reprogram microorganisms to do the conversion work done in a honeybee's cells. Think of how yeast turns sugars into alcohols.

This attempt to fabricate a bioengineered honey analog strikes a nerve with me. Partly because we take some responsibility for endangering the existence of bees. It feels to me like we're giving up on bees and already looking elsewhere to create fake honey as good as or better than real honeybee honey. Reliably, through a controllable production process and predictable supply chain.

Bees going away is not like the disappearances of the dodo or carrier pigeon. We rely on honey in the Honey Bunches of Oats my kids devour every morning. How many of us swirl it into, spread it on, or bake it into all sorts of things? Honey has become more important as an alternative to refined sugar in the past few years. According to Innova Insights, which tracks new products, 5% of all food and beverage launches in the US over the past five years included honey as an ingredient. That's thousands of honeyed items. About half as many as for vanilla but double raspberry and ten times fashionable açaí.

Honey is more of a staple than salmon for most of us and we're knocking down dams on the Columbia river to preserve the salmon run. What can we do for the bees? They're not charismatic megafauna, a designation given to the bald eagle, gray wolf, and otter, but honeybees play an outsized role in most ecosystems as pollinators and providers of food for us and many other species.

Which brings me to Pooh bear. Honey, the kind that's regurgitated by bees, and the bees themselves, are woven into our literature and music and art too, of course. The storybook images of Winnie's honey entanglements remain ubiquitous, delightful and relatable. If honey as we know it goes the way of the dodo these images will become less relatable. Poignant, quaint illustrations. Not observable experiences out in the world.

Maybe the story about bee-less honey got to me because of another set of childhood memories. I'll call our close family friend Mr. A. Mr. A despised honey. And okra. The unique sliminess keeps me away from okra too, but what is it about honey that riled him up every, single time? Mr. A once told me it was because of how bees expel honey out of their bodies. Bee vomit. Whatever the reason, if you uttered the word "honey" he would cuss and tickle you hard if you weren't quick enough to get away. Mr. A's aversion to honey got him and us into good trouble over the years.

One night someone slathered the car's steering wheel with a thick, rustic honey. Mr. A jumped out of the car, screaming. The joke was on us too because it was our brand new car, and the honey had had time to drip onto the upholstery while we held back our snickers over dessert.

Another time, traveling together in France, we came upon a miellerie; a honey shop, on a hilltop with a commanding view of the Alps. With a huge metallic honeybee affixed to the top of the shop. We insisted on stopping to eat. Poor Mr. A endured tastings of local honey and ribbings over the course of a long lunch on the patio.

Maybe what also gets me about the idea of manufactured honey is a paradox many of us seem to live with when choosing what to eat. We say we want to stay tethered to the earth and water from which we sprang and yet we are willing to embrace a future of synthetic foods. When you survey consumers about what factors most influence their decision when they're shopping for food, "natural," "no additives or preservatives," "made with real ingredients," and "no artificial flavors or colors" are close to the top. Also, many Americans say they want to be familiar with what's in the food they buy, or at least be able to pronounce the ingredients on the label. At the same time there is a growing appetite for these bioengineered, analog products that mimic what's readily found in nature. The processes for making these products are somewhat mysterious and the resulting product story is not going to be easy to really understand for most of us. So much for real, simple ingredients.

Those paving the way for a synthetic food future make a compelling case that the environment will be preserved by not over-stressing it producing food the way we have been for the last 50 years. Beyond Meat claims that water use should drop by over 99%, energy by almost half, and greenhouse gases by more than 90% if we eliminate cattle from meat production and distribution. We're responding. Plant-based meat sales, like Beyond Meat, were up 45% in 2020. But, meat sales also grew by double digits last year. The substitution of real meat with food that mimics meat is not happening. Not yet. The natural/synthetic conundrum lives.

Reading the almost daily news in the food press about alternative proteins and cultivated meat makes the future I've just described seem inevitable. This is where the big money is going. This sense of inevitability makes me squirm. It feels like the easier way forward in some sense, but not the only way.

Another way forward is to cut back on consumption of animal-based food in this country and adopt regenerative agriculture with a more localized supply chain. Traditional, sustainable agriculture, which is dependent on multiple crops and multiple livestock species, and the birds and the bees, is still feasible. But it does mean upending the current way we produce and distribute food.

Food makers are constructing a future with a broader array of concocted products that I feel will over time muscle out whole, much-less-adulterated, naturally conceived foods. And I think you and I are going to be ok with this. It will happen gradually. We will find the food tasty enough, affordable, and convenient. And we will live with the paradox that bugs me because we will accept a broader or revised meaning of the word "natural."

Alternative is maybe a better way than substitute to describe these synthetic, analog products. Consumerism creates choice. There's room for all tastes and price points. A jar of bee-made honey may cost a small fortune one day. Just for those who have the means, or a weak streak of nostalgia.

I wonder if humans are evolving away from feeling inextricably entwined with the DNA of all that is alive on earth. Is it a done deal that we will one day colonize another planet blessed with virgin soil and teeming with game? Or more than one planet. Enough land and resources to leave Earth behind?

A vastly less important but amusing personal question I have is how Mr. A would react to bee-less honey? Would he feign indignation? Swear at the mere mention of it or a jar of synthetic honey thrust in his face? Is there the remotest of possibilities that he would take a spoonful in his tea?

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