Here on Medgadget, we cover a lot of groundbreaking devices that save lives and improve health. But one often overlooked topic deals with something each and every one of us use every day: food. Food is essential for our survival, and one can say it interacts with our bodies more intimately than any medical product, so what we eat certainly plays a major role in our health.
We’ve had several opportunities to explore the world of “foodtech” recently. Here are a few notable products for your reading and eating pleasure.
First Course: Technology That Transforms the Way We Eat
Consumers are increasingly becoming more conscious about what they eat, and sensors are meeting this demand by analyzing the nutritional content of food with quick and simple tests.
One such device that we’ve covered in the past, called Nima, tests for the presence of gluten protein in food. While a gluten-free lifestyle is a popular diet fad, it’s also a real necessity for those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease, if not controlled, can lead to a whole host of digestive issues as well as an increased risk of various intestinal cancers. Nima makes gluten testing fast and discreet: simply place a pea-sized sample of food in the test capsule and screw on the cap, insert the capsule into the sensor and press the button, and wait a few minutes for the device to tell you if the food exceeds the FDA standard of less than 20 parts-per-million to be considered gluten-free. Nima also has a peanut sensor under development and has plans to expand to test for many other common food allergens.
Another device that’s been on our radar for the past several years is the SCiO food scanner. We first met SCiO back in 2014 when it launched as somewhat of a hobbyist Kickstarter project, but has grown over the years and taken on a few corporate partners, such as agricultural giant Cargill. SCiO is essentially a handheld near-infrared spectrometer; it analyzes the amount of light reflected off a sample of food being scanned and sends this information to its cloud-based algorithms to match it and provide information on its chemical makeup. Consumers who purchase SCiO can scan produce and other foods to determine their nutritional content and also to use it to identify medicine pills. SCiO also has a host of potential applications for food and beverage, medical, pharmaceutical, and of course agricultural businesses; Cargill uses it to analyze the nutritional content of its dairy cows’ feed.
Second Course: Technology That is Changing What We Eat
In fast-paced places like Silicon Valley, where this editor resides, efficiency in work, and even in life, seems to be a necessity. So much so that even meal preparation and eating are considered by many to be a potential waste of time. Out of this philosophy was born a new generation of nutritionally-complete meal replacement drinks which, unlike SlimFast and Ensure, focus heavily on their macro- and micronutrient profiles and come with explanations for every ingredient that goes into the drink. One of the pioneers of this multi-billion dollar industry is Soylent, whose products can now be found in powder, bar, and bottled drink form. Not green, and thankfully not made of people, Soylent came about as a result of frustration with the effort and cost associated with purchasing, preparing, and consuming food that was neither healthy nor enjoyable.
Medgadget was sent another similar product called Huel that recently expanded into North America to compete with Soylent. It’s a similar concept: simply mix the powdered Huel with water, and you’ll have a nutritionally-complete meal that can be prepared and consumed in minutes. We received both the artificially-sweetened vanilla flavor, as well as the unsweetened version, and attempted to go a week drinking only Huel. While we survived the week and felt a little healthier in the end, it wasn’t the most pleasant eating/drinking experience. Texturally, Huel wasn’t always consistently smooth; we’d find tiny bits of oats or flaxseed that made it feel like we were drinking liquefied, slightly undercooked oatmeal. The taste had much to be desired as well: the subtle vanilla flavor was palatable, but we’ve never been huge fans of most sucralose and stevia sweetened shakes. The biggest flavor turn-off in our opinion was the inclusion of pea protein. We’ve disliked just about every shake we’ve tried with pea protein due to its strong flavor. We far preferred the more versatile, unflavored Huel powder; not only could we make a far superior tasting shake, but we were able to repurpose it into a number of savory foods.
Meal replacement drinks can be beneficial for those with severe dietary restrictions, as they’re easy to accurately portion out. They’re also perfect for those who could care less about taste or truly are too busy to even eat solid food.
Another distinctly Silicon Valley goal is re-engineering the burger, although with a different agenda. Medgadget was invited a few months ago to tour the Redwood City offices, food labs, and manufacturing facilities of Impossible Foods. Their mission isn’t to convert carnivores or save the cows; rather, it’s to reduce the environmental impact that animal agriculture has on the planet. According to the company’s website, their Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than their beefy counterpart.
But Impossible Foods knows that it couldn’t make converts by simply creating another soy-based look-alike, so they’ve started by researching the science behind what makes a burger a burger. Walking through the Impossible Foods labs, you’d think the company was developing a cure for cancer with all the advanced chemistry equipment in it. That’s because they take real hamburger and conduct a whole host of measurements to analyze the color, texture, aromatic and flavor compounds, chemical reactivity, and other properties, breaking a hamburger down into its very essence. With this knowledge, they can re-engineer a quite convincing substitute using wheat protein, potato protein, soy protein, coconut oil, xanthan, konjac, flavoring, and “heme”. “Heme” is the name of an iron-containing molecule found in all plants and animals and gives meat its flavor. Impossible Foods engineers its heme from the root nodules of soy plants and includes it in the burger to give it the characteristic red color, meaty flavor, aroma and cooking properties of hamburger. According to CEO (and biochemist) Patrick Brown, the company can easily adapt this approach for developing other meat protein substitutes, like fish or pork.
So how did it taste in the end? We were pretty convinced; from the “raw” form to the cooking process to the finished and dressed product, it felt as if we were cooking up burgers on our backyard grill. The “meat” was wet and sticky in the “raw” form, gave a pleasant sizzle with wonderful aromas while being grilled, and was presented to us perfectly medium-rare. If one didn’t know ahead of time that they were eating a meatless burger, we think they would be pleasantly fooled. But don’t just take our word for it; the Impossible Burger can be found in restaurants in 26 states, so give it a taste if it’s nearby you.
Dessert: Concluding Thoughts
Whether environmental, convenience, or health, these companies all have various reasons why we should be changing our eating habits. While we might not agree with all of them, we think it’s great that technology is giving consumers more choices about what to eat and enabling them to become better informed about what they are eating. In the end, we think of it much like medical technology: if it improves your quality of life and makes you feel great, then go ahead and eat to good health.