Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living in the Future

It being the new year and all, I thought it might be nice to reflect upon what we, as a whole, have achieved that was once science fiction but is now commonplace. Or at least existent. And I'm not going to focus on the big obvious things, because those are boring and, well, we know smartphones and iPads and modern medicine are crazy futuristic devices/advances. That's obvious. But what about the little things? Specifically, what about food?


I was inspired to write this post when I was eating a fried egg and cheese toasted sandwich that was both gluten and dairy-free. The cheese was made of soy and the bread was specially processed to get rid of the gluten, as well as being made with alternate flours (that is to say, it has gluten-free wheat starch as a key ingredient as well as non-wheat flours). If you're wondering, the cheese stuff does sort of taste of cheese (without the evil taste of doom that I associate with dairy products), particularly if it's mixed with something else, like egg and bread. Other magic pseudo-dairy products I have in my fridge include rice milk, oat milk, soyghurt, oat milk-based ice cream, oat milk fauxghurt, rice milk-based cream, soy-based sour cream, two types of pretend cheese (another flavour of the slices and a solid type one I haven't actually tried yet) and dairy-free margarine.

The more exotic of these are relatively recent inventions. In terms of food (intentionally) not containing gluten*, coeliac disease (and hence the negative impact of gluten on sufferers) was discovered circa World War II (thanks to bread shortages, I believe), margarine has been around for a while, soy and grain milks even longer, although less so in the western world. Another relatively recent development is vegetarian products which resemble miscellaneous meat products. There's not-bacon (it even comes with not-fat bits), slices pretending to be ham, a variety of sausages -- from pseudo hot dog to chorizo to pseudo chicken and gourmet -- faux chicken nuggets, kebablike things and probably something else that's slipped my mind.

All these things already exist.

Science fiction often has us eating vat-grown protein (Bujold's Vorkosigan books), hydroponic vegetables (lots of things) soy moulded into all sorts of unusual and interesting-tasting things (Asimov and others). We already have hydroponic vegetables -- I'm pretty sure that's where my tomatoes come from these days -- and soy disguised as all sorts of things. The main difference is that we're growing these things on Earth, not in space. But we're getting there.

Uncooked quinoa. Nabbed from wiki here.
NASA has looked into (pdf) using quinoa as a space crop because, unlike soy, quinoa is a complete protein. This means that it contains all the essential amino acids we need (just like meat does). As well as being high in protein, it's high in fibre, iron and other useful things. And in terms of off-world farming, crops are much easier to deal with than animals. That pdf I linked at the start of this paragraph is pretty old, and I suspect NASA's research is directed elsewhere for the moment, but there's no reason for this not to be taken further in the future.

Another aspect I want to touch on is additives. There is a certain magic to making something taste like a thing that hasn't even been within a metre of the production line. More importantly, and more relevantly, are preservatives, both the chemical and the food-storage kind. The fact that we can ship things all around the globe without them going off before they reach their destination is also a little bit magic, when you think about what our pre-refrigeration ancestors had to contend with. To say nothing of freeze-drying or long-life (dairy) milk.

And I haven't even begun to talk about mass production farming and all that jazz. Although, despite continuing research/advances in those areas, aspects of that are a little less futuristic-feeling than pretend sausages. Unless we're talking about genetic modification, but that's a whole other can of worms.

So. We might not quite be up to growing crops in space yet, but in terms of what we can do with food, I think we're already living a little bit in the future.

*which isn't actually the substance I have issues with, but that's beside the point.

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