Brave new food: You won’t believe the things you’ll be putting in your mouth

Remember the first part of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when the ape threw the bone in the air and it suddenly cut to the space station? Food science took a similar leap in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2009, science rewrote food history when, Science magazine reported, archeologists in Mozambique discovered traces of sorghum starch on stone tools dating back 105,000 years. Scientists previously believed that the human use of grains began only 23,000 years ago. Truth is, early humans probably used that grain to brew something like beer. Neolithic beer jugs date to at least 12,000 years ago, pre-dating bread as a grain-based dietary staple.

Now cut to the space station. Though NASA won’t be visiting the moon again anytime soon, the private sector certainly will. An Arizona company called Paragon Space Development is slated to start farming on the moon in 2012 — without government funding, according to ABC News.

They’ll start with mustard plants, whose flowering is attuned to lunar cycles. Each plant will have a tailored biosphere, much like an astronaut’s spacesuit. On the moon, earth-based life must adapt to one-sixth gravity and to cosmic energies usually deflected by Earth’s magnetosphere. Hopefully, that means 2-ton hands of garlic and 20-foot leaves of spinach.

But while agriculture prepares to leave the planet, one of the world’s oldest cuisines already has. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi closed out 2009 by becoming the first human to make sashimi and sushi in space, served to his Russian and American colleagues at the International Space Station.

Back on terra firma, Popular Science reported that scientists in the Netherlands are engineering foods that, when chewed, release “satiating aromas” — volatile molecules that dupe the brain into a sense of stomach-fullness.

Think of the advantages of feeling completely satisfied after just two slices of pizza.

Think of the 20 plus-sized citizens of Vaxjo, Sweden, who slogged up the stairs last month for a post-holiday weigh-in at the local Weight Watchers and the floor collapsed underneath them. “We are going to have to find a replacement premises,” said Therese Levin, a Weight Watchers consultant, speaking to the London Times.

As obesity rates continue to rise in developed nations, starvation still plagues the Third World. Scientists around the globe, spurred on by a $1 million prize offered by PETA, the animal rights group, are racing to produce a new food that will forever change life on the planet — in-vitro, or laboratory-grown, meat.

The implications of in-vitro meat are enormous. From a single animal cell, a limitless supply of meat could be produced, the quality precisely controlled. Issues of animal cruelty and negative environmental impact would be instantly eliminated.

“You could do it in a way that’s better for the environment and human health,” says Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit spearheading in-vitro meat research. “In the long term, this is a very feasible idea.”

So far, the Dutch are in the lead again. Popular Science reports that last year, researchers at Eindhoven University succeeded in culturing stem cells to produce a thin strip of pork muscle — albeit a form far removed from your standard supermarket pork chop. Once the process is perfected, the culturing of in-vitro meat won’t necessarily be limited to barnyard stock. Any cell is fair game: polar bear, mandrill, even pterodactyl.

Savvy cooks have long known that aromatic sauces are effective disguises for foods with potential “yuck” factors. According to researchers at the Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC) in Britain, your fake steaks or petri poultry would best be served in a golden cloak of curry.

Turmeric, a bright yellow rhizome in the ginger family, gives curry powder its color. And curcumin, a constituent of turmeric, kills cancer cells. A 2009 BBC News story about the findings of the CCRC stated that “curcumin started to kill cancer cells within 24 hours,” and is particularly effective against esophageal cancer. Long esteemed as an antiseptic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, curcumin is currently being tested as a treatment for arthritis and Alzheimers, and as protection for the skin during radiotherapy.

“I can vouch for its antiseptic qualities,” says Zen Zero chef and owner Subarna Bhattachan, a native of Nepal, where turmeric (also known as “Indian Saffron”) grows wild. As a boy, Bhattachan recalls his mother making a paste of oil and ground turmeric to dress his frequent dents and dings. “It’s messy, it stains your skin yellow,” Bhattachan says, “but it heals cuts and wounds right away.”

The majority of the recent developments in food science titillate both the imagination and the tastebuds. Popular Science touts synthetic alcohol, for example, which yields a mellow, non-addictive buzz you can cancel instantly with an antidote pill.

For those who view these advancements with trepidation, take consolation in the fact that, a scant 50 years ago, the introduction of the home microwave oven caused a national wave of concern about radiation poisoning and complaints about the unappetizing appearance of microwaved foods. Yet it changed the way we eat, and now we can’t imagine cooking without it. Here we go again.


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