By Richard Faulk in Discover Magazine
On February 20, 1962, the spacecraft Friendship 7, carrying astronaut John Glenn, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This Mercury 6 mission made Glenn the third American to enter space and the first to orbit the Earth.
Glenn also has the distinction of being the first American to eat in space. His astro-meal consisted of applesauce squeezed from an aluminum tube, which he washed down with an orange-flavored powdered drink mix called Tang. Hardly anyone remembers the applesauce, but the drink was history-making.
Tang became an emblem of the space age. With a list of ingredients that includes lots of things you’d find in a chemistry lab and less than 2 percent “natural flavor,” the powdered drink mix also became a bellwether for the breaching of another frontier: the brave new world of synthetic food.
Space-Age Food for Space-Age Folk
Tang was developed in the late 1950s by food scientist William A. Mitchell. It is rumored to have been intended as a more nutritious competitor to Kool-Aid — which, if true, was a remarkably low bar to set for the chemical genius who would also give the world Cool Whip and Pop Rocks. To Kool-Aid’s kid-pleasing formula of masses of sugar, boldly unnatural coloring, and nothing much else, Mitchell added an extra-large dose of vitamins C and A, a pinch more citric acid and a soupçon of natural flavors for a taste and tingly mouth feel not entirely un-evocative of orange juice.
Mitchell’s laboratory drink was a flop: For moms, Tang was neither orangey nor convenient enough to displace frozen OJ from America’s breakfast tables, while kiddies found it too juice-like to be fun.
Countless bottles of this pulpless imitation orange juice were languishing on supermarket shelves when Tang’s unexpected cameo 162 miles above Earth catapulted it to stardom. Thanks to its continued presence on NASA’s subsequent Gemini missions, Tang became inextricably identified with the space program. In fact, many consumers believed that it had been developed by NASA itself, an urban legend that General Foods, the actual manufacturer, did nothing to dispel.
Having embraced Tang, the American shopper started taking a second look at other powdered foods. Nondairy creamer, instant coffee and mashed potatoes, and dehydrated soups and sauces had been available at least since World War II; some products, like powdered milk, went way back to the nineteenth century. But these powders were by far the least popular of processed foods — which is no surprise, because they are, frankly speaking, gross. Now, with a chromium veneer of space-age glamour, they seemed exciting, modern, as finely engineered as an Atlas rocket to be superior to anything found in nature.
That gritty mouthfeel and bitter-tinny aftertaste was the flavor of progress.
Shaking Off the Shackles of Nature
While gourmets of any era might consider industrialized food a crime against eating, the original proponents of ultra-processing imagined something far more noble than the burnt-tasting coffee crystals and starchy packets of instant béchamel that the food industry eventually provided.
For the vast majority of human existence, food insecurity was the norm. In even the wealthiest of societies, famine was just one sustained drought, one extended winter, one invading army away. The promise of food untethered to the whims of nature, food that could be made by human ingenuity to be abundant, portable, preservable, and cheap was a utopian dream with revolutionary potential. By meeting our basic biological needs, synthetic food — say, in the form of a pill — would allow us all to live with the freedom and security once reserved for the aristocracy. There would be no more leverage to force anyone into accepting dangerous or degrading jobs, fewer onerous domestic duties confining women to the home. Instead, each of us would be able to pursue meaningful avocations, laboring now to satisfy the demands not of the body but of the soul.
In the late nineteenth century, simultaneous developments in chemistry, industry, and politics made that moment seem tantalizingly near.
The Progressive Promise of the Food Pill
Alongside robots and jet packs, food pills complete the holy trinity of futuristic kitsch. They run the fantasy-adventure gamut, from the classic sci-fi of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to the space-race camp of TV’s Lost in Space and The Jetsons (whose breakfast pills include burnt toast). Even the technophobic fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien include food pills, in the form of lembas, an elvish sort of super trail mix.
The apotheosis of processed food, the meal in a pill seems an idea native to the twentieth century, but its origins lie in the Victorian era.
One of the first to speculate in earnest about food pills was the feminist, lawyer, and populist firebrand Mary Elizabeth Lease, who, as part of the hype building up to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, was asked by the Associated Press to forecast the world of 1993. Lease predicted a future where the minimization of household chores would raise the status of women. She imagined future diners consuming
in condensed form the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juice of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved.
One year later, the eminent French chemist Marcellin Berthelot made a similar prediction, in equally purple prose and at much greater length, in an interview called “Foods in the Year 2000,” which could be considered a synthetic-food manifesto.
In Berthelot’s vision, at the dawn of the second millennium, chemistry will have replaced the unreliable bounty of Lease’s Mother Nature: “a great proportion of our staple foods, which we now obtain through natural growth, would be manufactured direct, through the advance of synthetic chemistry, from their constituent elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.” And why should anyone mourn the death of natural foods? After all, the professor asks readers to acknowledge that “the beefsteak of to-day is not the most perfect… in either color or composition.”
In contrast, culinary chemists of the future will manufacture nutritionally optimal steak from the atoms up. Of course, it might not look much like meat as we know it. Nevertheless, “chemically, digestively, and nutritively speaking,” it will be “the same identical food.” As a matter of fact, he adds, “its form will differ, because it will probably be a tablet.”
However, Berthelot’s tablet is somewhere between a food pill proper and a Star Trek replicator meal, because the final product will be “of any color and shape that is desired, and will, I think, entirely satisfy the epicurean senses of the future.” Berthelot is one of the few theorists of the food pill who bothers to consider flavor and appearance and not just nutrition. For all his techno-utopianism, Berthelot was, after all, still French. There is room in his engineered future for artificial wine, liquor, and even tobacco — perhaps a sneak preview of today’s vaporizers.
Not everyone was as pro-pill as Lease and Berthelot. In the 1887 satiric novel The Republic of the Future, author Anna Dodd envisions with horror the food pellets prescribed by state scientists and distributed from centralized larders directly to kitchen-free homes via hundreds of miles of pneumatic tube. Though the 2050 dining experience might not recall the opulence of Victorian banquets, its refined nature suits the residents of New York Socialist City. It is also more egalitarian, since domestic science will have eliminated the need for both servants and housewives: “When the last pie was made into the first pellet, woman’s true freedom began.” Dodd’s reactionary sympathies, however, lay entirely with the pies and the men.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
Food pills were heralded repeatedly and with certainty. So why don’t we have them?
Because a meal in a pill is an impossibility.
From simply an energy standpoint, no single pill can deliver what we need. An average adult woman needs about 2,000 calories per day. (Men require a few hundred more.) Oils and fats are the most calorie-rich foods, but — whether you go au naturel, à la Lease, and choose lard or prefer a more factory-refined oil as Berthelot might — it would take more than a cup of either for you to hit your calorie quota.
If that weren’t enough bulk to scuttle the idea of a super-concentrated food system, most of us need between 26 and 40 grams of fiber if we’d like to avoid constipation and colon cancer. So let’s add, say, a quarter cup of your favorite roughage.
Nutrition might seem an easier fix, since vitamins are measured in milligrams. However, there is some evidence suggesting that vitamin pills are not as effective as the vitamins we extract from actual food. In other words, Berthelot’s hypothesis may have been mistaken — carbon or hydrogen in one context may not be quite the same as carbon or hydrogen in another. And, even if they are, there’s always the possibility that there are critical aspects of nutrition that we still do not understand, such as micronutrients and who knows what else.
More than nutritional impracticalities, though, it was culture that killed the dream of the food pill. By the early ’70s, space-age modernism had lost its luster. Industrialism was now synonymous with pollution and wastefulness, and technological fixes seemed soulless and authoritarian.
In 1970, the foodie movement was born when Alice Waters opened the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, a center of the back-to-the-land ethos of the hippie counterculture. Her food mantra — local, fresh, and in season — marked a return to a romantic belief like Lease’s that nature provides and that the best thing a cook can do is not get in the way of the ingredients.
The Victorians who had looked hopefully toward a day when no-prep, no-clean-up food pills would be consumed in kitchenless homes would have been shocked by our early twenty-first-century fetish for homemade pickles, urban beekeeping, and artisanal ketchup. And handlebar mustaches: They probably would have been puzzled as to why we’re still doing that too.
The death knell of synthetic food was Soylent Green, a 1973 sci-fi film that depicts a dystopian future ravaged by global warming and overpopulation, where the velvet-clad haves eat steak and drink bourbon in rococo condos, while the masses of have-nots squat in tenements and subsist on a synthesized protein product… that turns out to be manufactured from — spoiler alert! — human remains.
Tang, Kool-Aid, Cool Whip, Nescafé, Cup-a-Soup, and the other mutant brainchildren of Professor Berthelot’s synthetic food chemistry can still be found in any supermarket, but they are relics of a bygone era. Their moment of glory did not long outlive NASA’s last visit to the moon, in 1972.
Food Hacking with Soylent
But, like Frankenstein’s monster, any idea as audacious as human-manufactured food cannot die forever.
Synthetic food might have lost its savor decades ago, but it has thrived in one form: liquid meal replacements. From Carnation Instant Breakfast, which debuted in 1964, to Slimfast, Ensure, and more, these nutritional supplements target consumers with specific concerns: bodybuilders who want to bulk up, the elderly too frail cook, dieters weaning themselves from the pleasures of mealtime.
Along with energy bars and a new generation of juice cleanses and diets, liquid meal replacements have nearly normalized the idea that nutrition and cuisine can be separated, that there is eating for survival and then there is recreational eating.
Among a new population disrupting the idea of eating is Robert Rhinehart. The electrical engineer turned entrepreneur/food scientist is pioneering a new return to the nineteenth-century techno-utopian dream of synthetic food.
Dismayed at the inconvenience of microwaving corn dogs and boiling instant ramen when he was living the start-up life in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Rhinehart figured that there had to be an easier and cheaper way to keep his body alive enough to keep coding. So he started on a crash course in nutrition. Determining 35 essential nutrients, he blended them up and then began blogging about his experiences as he lived off his formula for a month. Rhinehart named his nutrition drink Soylent — thus proving yet again that, however much they might try, electrical engineers fundamentally do not understand irony.
On his blog, Rhinehart posted his motivating hypothesis: “The body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains.… Besides olive oil for fatty acids and table salt for sodium and chloride nothing [in my drink] is recognizable as food.” This is a perfect paraphrase of the vision that Marcellin Berthelot was promulgating exactly 120 years earlier.
Like any Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Rhinehart is as much an evangelist as he is a businessman: He’s not just marketing rebranded Ensure to time-strapped and taste-challenged techies: He’s “hacking the body” and combating global hunger.
And it may not be all hype: At three calories a penny in Rhinehart’s reckoning, or about $7 for a day’s worth of nutrition, Soylent — if it ever sees full-scale production — would be no more expensive than fast food but vastly more healthful. And while the product still might be prohibitively expensive for people in developing nations, Rhinehart hopes one day to engineer genetically altered Soylent-producing algae, which would make the drink essentially free.
A secondary benefit of turning to a synthetic diet would be the scaling-back of industrial agriculture, which is currently straining the environment. For instance, livestock is responsible for almost 15 percent of greenhouse gases; and in drought-wracked California, agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state’s water.
But even agricultural disruption was anticipated by Bertholot more than 100 years ago: “At some more or less distant period in the future, synthetic chemistry will destroy all the great agricultural industries, and put to new uses the grain fields and cattle ranges of to-day.”
Let’s give the father of synthetic chemistry the last word:
If the surface of the earth ceases to be divided, and I may say disfigured, by the geometrical devices of agriculture, it will regain its natural verdure of woods and flowers.… The favored portions of the earth will become vast gardens, in which the human race will dwell amid a peace, a luxury, and an abundance recalling the Golden Age of legendary lore.
Someone should get this guy a TED Talk.