Impossible Burgers, pea protein and cricket flour: How Silicon Valley changed what we eat

In her new book "Technically Food," Larissa Zimberoff explores the overlap between technology and your daily diet

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 23, 2021 8:20PM (EDT)

Pea Milk (Getty Images/Elena Dy)
Pea Milk (Getty Images/Elena Dy)

At least a few times a week, I'll open my email to find a press release that illustrates the ever-growing overlap between food and technology. Restaurants are releasing non-fungible tokens in the form of videos of food being prepared. Companies are betting that artificial intelligence can grocery shop for you. Plus, there seems to be a new nut or seed milk company launching at every turn.

The industrialization of what's on our plates has been a big topic among chefs, environmentalists and food access advocates for decades. And it has increasingly been in the spotlight as products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger go mainstream. In her book "Technically, Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat," author Larissa Zimberoff examines what it means when start-ups and scientists working in futuristic labs create new food categories, such as milk made without cows and eggs developed without chickens. 

Zimberoff spoke with Salon Food about what inspired her to write this story, the promise (and ultimate downfall) of cricket protein and what the tensions between whole foods and technology mean for the average home cook. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

You discuss it some in the introduction to "Technically, Food," but what was the impetus for writing this book? 

There are sort of two pieces to why I finally wrote this book. The first was because I was covering food tech for the last five to seven years, and during that time, everyone was asking me about what I was eating and what I was writing about. They wanted to know, "Was it delicious? Was it healthy? Was it good for them? Good for the environment?" It wasn't just my family and friends asking — it was strangers. 

I was in New York at the time when I initially sold the book proposal, but I was also spending time in the Bay Area and [food tech] was really starting to get bigger, right? The investment was starting to become a bigger thing. 

Secondly, I have Type 1 diabetes, which I talk about in the book, and that makes me look at food differently. My expectations from food are different, and I have much higher expectations. I don't like things that are too sweet. I don't like things that have high glycemic carbohydrates. I have more questions for my food. You know, I have to look at the nutrition facts panel religiously. 

So, I felt like these two things — people wanting to know more, and I was a person who had questions — led me to be like, "I'm going to do this book." 

There is so much happening in the world of food technology. How did you determine what facets of the market you wanted to focus on? 

Yes, that is such a good question. One of the chapters that's not in this book is about bugs — insects. It was a conversation that I had with my agent, and we went back and forth. It was one of the areas in food tech that I had started covering early on. Crickets were really a thing for a bit. There was cricket flour, food bars, protein bars. I was so interested in crickets, and I was pitching crickets to publications. And — you'll get this — for some reason, I was either too advanced or too behind. Like, I'd pitch, and they'd be like, "Meh." Or I'd pitch, and they'd be like, "We just did a cricket article." 

I felt like I just kept missing out on crickets. I never wrote a story about it, even though I had done so much research on it. This is easily like seven years ago. I didn't write about it, and then I really felt like it fizzled out. I just didn't see it being food at scale for humans. Of course, it's culturally in our diets in different places in the world, but that "ick factor" just never went away. I just felt like people weren't going to eat bug-based flour-based cereal. I think that as a solution for feeding fish and aquafarms or animals, that sounds great. There are investments picking up that sector of insects. 

So, really for this book, I had to ask, "What is going to be big? What are consumers actually eating? What do we want to be eating?" 

In Chapter 2, there is a line in the "Burger Competition" section where you write, "Beyond's burger has millions of dollars invested in its formulation and an assurance to investors that it was technology, not food, that made it better than the real thing." Do you see that attitude play out elsewhere in Silicon Valley?

Oh, absolutely. These companies aren't food companies. They're all technology. That is how they bring investors in. Investors want to know that they have technology, that they're applying for patents, that there's a reason this company exists or a reason that someone can't just come and knock it off. There are a few companies that feel more "food forward" or have a sort of culinary edge, but predominantly, it was about getting investors. 

You need technology to prove that you've got something different. 

I want to talk about pea milk [laughs]. First off, I haven't tried it yet. What is it like? 

Oh, gosh. It's delicious. It's so creamy and thick. I grew up drinking non-fat milk, which is terrible and thin. 

White water. 

Yes, white water. It was the worst. I also grew up eating margarine, and I think that experience — well, I eventually stopped drinking cow's milk entirely long ago. You know, non-dairy milk is like the gateway to getting people to go plant-based because it's so easy, right? I think that I first converted to soy milk. Then it was rice milk, which is too sweet. Then almond milk, which is, again, too thin and doesn't work in coffee or tea. So, [the pea milk] Ripple — I don't know why it doesn't have the Oatly cred. 

But I think Ripple has kind of little hints of vegetal, and it's still peas. They just weren't able to get cool and hip like oats. Oats lend themselves to morning and breakfasts. But it's creamy — it's got a great mouthfeel, and it has a great protein profile. So, if someone is plant-based and they asked me what to drink after working out, I think Ripple chocolate milk is a great solution for that because it's going to have everything you need. 

When you visited Adam Lowry, the CEO of Ripple Foods, you had jokingly envisioned a headline like, "Are you prepared to drink pea milk?" As you said, there's kind of a "prepping for a bomb shelter" sense to it. How do you think food items shift from that to becoming part of an average, daily shopping list? How do they shed the "bomb shelter vibe"? 

Oh, my gosh. "Shedding the Bomb Shelter." That'd be such a good headline. You know, when Impossible first launched, it was with chefs. It was very "foodie," and it was very elite, right? People were tracking it down to taste it, and when they got into fast food, it was kind of a done deal. They went to fast food. They went into supermarkets. They now have direct-to-consumer on their website. They're really part of everybody's life when grandmas know Impossible Foods or Beyond Burger. 

You know, it's interesting because Beyond Meat came out with chicken. But [Beyond Meat CEO] Ethan Brown went the supermarket route, and I think it took longer to get onto everyone's tongue than Impossible because Impossible started with the chefs, the trendsetters. 

So, I think companies are looking like, "Do I go to trendsetters? Or do I go direct-to-consumer like Prime Roots, whose koji bacon is only direct-to-consumer?" They occasionally have stuff at Whole Foods, but they're really focused on direct-to-consumer. Younger people, younger founders – they're starting businesses on Instagram. 

All the companies look to Impossible and Beyond, though, and thank them for sort of paving the way. But they are starting to veer off into new forms of consumer shopping. 

I wanted to pose your own final question from the pea milk chapter to you: In 20 years, do you think this "pea technology" will be considered a good thing for humans? 

You know, we can just compare it to soy protein isolate. Soy has been in our diet since like the 40s, 50s, 60s and is a complete mainstay in our diet. While I don't think that fractionated plants are still whole plants — I don't see them as being as beneficial for us — we have been using soy protein isolate in foods for so long, for decades and decades. I haven't seen anything that proposes it's bad for us. I think a whole foods diet is what's best for us, but I don't think having these isolates or this protein from plants is necessarily a bad thing. 

It's just like the volume of what you're consuming. I think peas, you know, because it's not GMO and because it isn't a monocrop yet — although it's widely grown — I do think that there are things that make it, in my mind, a little bit better. 

I know that the pandemic threw off conference schedules and such, but in the chapter "Milk & Eggs," you mention visiting the Future Food Tech conference in 2016 — before it had really blown up. How have conferences like that changed in the ensuing years? 

They've gotten a whole lot bigger, and they're happening constantly. Where it used to be, I could attend all of them and attend them in single days. They're not happening over multiple days and more frequently. I have one coming up called the Alternative Protein Conference, so they're also niching down, right? You know, you might see a conference that's just on seafood or just on mycoprotein, which is mycelium fungi. I can't even keep up with it — that's what's happening. 

I think that chapter, in particular, really captures what I see as a main tension in this book between what most people would classify as "natural" and "synthetic" foods. How do you think that tension impacts everyday home cooks and eaters? 

While I have an opinion about food or what I want from food — that is, my expectations are much higher — I think that many home cooks are just looking for things like convenience, ease and things that are delicious. They want inexpensive — they're looking for price parity and things that are easy-to-find and good. Like, that hasn't changed. 

The sooner that any of these food tech companies can get to that, the more they'll grow. So, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have really come down in price. Sometimes they've just dropped prices to drop prices, sort of like the Amazon model, right? They're making things cheap just to get the consumers. 

That's one of the things that I wanted the book to spotlight and be like, "Let's talk about this." Let's think about this before it's just happened — the industrialization of our food system, which happened after World War II. We wanted food untouched by humans. We wanted Wonder Bread that lasted for weeks and weeks and weeks. We wanted technology. 

Then we shifted to wanting more transparency, farm-to-table. There's a tension because we're losing that because technology is so exciting. And everyone is worried about the climate and the planet and saving the animals and there are almost too many things juggling for our attention. We each, as individuals, are going to be making decisions like, "What's most important?" And that's complicated. What's going to win out? We don't know. 

Larissa Zimberoff's Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat is now available for purchase. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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