What’s your favorite dish or food? Aside from a few mainstays (e.g. bread, cheese), the item is likely new. Maybe it’s milk chocolate. That’s about 150 years old. Perhaps, it’s a spicy tomato-based South Indian soup? Peppers and tomatoes were only introduced to India around the 15th century. How about Tiramisu? A baby. 50 years old.
Any culinary tradition that you invoke – Indian food, Mexican food, Italian food – is a newcomer in the course of human history. Humans originated roughly 200,000 years ago, but familiar dishes pervaded only in the last hundreds of years primarily due to trade and technological advancement. If we compressed human history to a day, many beloved dishes and foods only entered in the final minutes. Most of human history entailed simply surviving starvation ; sophisticated recipes indulged a rich few, and some would even disgust us today. As economies developed and more societal members ascended the human development ladder, culinary creativity and options blossomed.
We inhabit a gastronomical Enlightenment. If you live in a decent size, globally-connected city, you likely access Chinese food, Spanish food, Ethiopian food, etc. Ingredients have also proliferated. You can purchase tahini from Israel, cheese from Switzerland, or coffee from West Africa. It was not always like this, even recently. The television series Mad Men, a period piece set in the 1950s, highlighted a character bringing back oranges from Florida to his office in New York City. Ask your grandma when she first had an avocado. Assuming you’re not of Mexican/Californian/Peruvian descent, it was probably only in the second half of her life.
Given that most of our food is new, the corollary suggests that many, amazing foods are completely undiscovered. It’s as if we’re the crew leading the USS Enterprise to new, exotic planets. Humanity only knows a certain amount of space/planets and our ship is bidden to find other planets. Suppose every planet we discover is a new delicacy. Not all of them are memorable, but a few exceed the current set of food. Nonetheless, as we uncover more space/planets, our gastronomical repertoire can only exponentiate. I term this the Expanse of Amazing Foods.
If not apparent, I metaphorized the Expanse from food chemistry. We can extract components from different food substrates and combine them to generate potentially superior foods. For example, milk proteins and fat aggregate to form cheese. Could we take proteins from something else (e.g. yeast)? And fats from elsewhere (e.g. coconuts) and create something cheese-like? Perhaps it tastes better than normal cheese. Maybe it even satisfies in way superior to hamburgers. Suppose it imparts more vitamins than a bowl of spinach.
You may be wondering how this topic relates to the Future without Animal Products. Why not explore animal products? Yes, that’s tenable, but this Expanse is massive – effectively, infinite. No matter how many ships we send out or how fast they travel, we will never reach all of it. I conjecture that traversing this Expanse would actually be faster if we don’t consider animal products. Expanse exploration is tantamount to the chemistries we can apply to substrates. There are significantly more chemistries we can use on non-animal products versus animal products. One reason stems from the inherent danger of animal-based goods. One cannot safely eat raw meat; therefore, using raw meat as a substrate is too dangerous. We can use raw vegetables, nuts, and even microbes (e.g. yeast) easily though. Secondly, animal products are poor planets to explore because of the fundamental process limitations (as evinced in the Animals by the Numbers posts). For example, suppose we pinpoint a specific cow protein for a novel food. We would need too much time/resources to synthesize and separate one cow protein.
For readers who have read my other posts, you perhaps infer that I consider the animal-free industry to be too parochial. Specifically, I perceive most efforts to generate simulacrums of existing animal-based goods. I understand the logic: customers would be more willing to try something familiar even if inferior. However, consider most esteemed vegan/vegetarian dishes. What’s the quality that elicits satisfaction? I would argue that it’s because they are delectable on their own, not because they evoke feelings of animal-based dishes. I enjoy falafel wraps because they’re tasty and filling. Not because they remind me of lamb shawarma (Döner Kebab auf Deutsch). We need more awesome, non-animal dishes that drown out the animal-based ones.
To drive this point home, consider replacements to animals in other technological arenas. For example, horses dominated transportation for the better part of human history. The replacement wasn’t a robotic horse. It was a car. Even though it’s a fundamentally different design, cars exceed the useful qualities of a horse (e.g. speed, distance one can travel) and dispense the disadvantageous ones (e.g. tiredness, longevity). Likewise, we must understand the distinguishing, pervading qualities of animal products (e.g. fillingness? umami taste?) and generate more foods that exceed these parameters. As we explore the Expanse, we will find more such foods even if of fundamentally different design.
Finding new, better foods analogizes to exploring new physical space. Exploring this space will be faster and easier if we only consider non-animal sources. We should welcome novel designs that augment our culinary possibilities.
- Thanks to P. Randolph for helpful discussions regarding this post.
 Harari, Y. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 2014