Making a Meal of It: The Christmas Dinners of the Future

Food has changed drastically over the years and it seems almost inevitable that it will continue to do so. But what of that steadfast holiday staple, the Christmas dinner? Will it be simply the same food as now but lab-grown? Will it be produced using a 3D printer? Callum Tyndall investigates

Christmas dinner is tradition, serving as a reunion point for family and friends to come together over mass quantities of roast meat and vegetables. Thanksgiving serves the same purpose across the pond.

However, steeped in tradition as these meals are (there’s a certain Dickensian appeal to Christmas dinner), they’re far from free from evolution. Even in small ways, your roast bird of choice may now be organic rather than battery-farmed or your vegetables roasted in a low-calorie oil; the steady march of time has seen our food continue to change and it is unlikely to stop any time soon.

With the speed at which technology advances, moreover, and particularly with some of the technology being developed, it could be that the next few years will see a radical shift in the future of food. Whether it be through the resurrection of extinct species (Christmas Dodo anyone?) or every stage of the preparation process being handled by robotic means, the occasion dinners of the future are unlikely to be quite so Dickens.

The Foodini machine prints a corn cob dish. Image courtesy of Natural Machines​​​​​​​

The next dimension: 3D printed dinners

We know that 3D printers can make food, whether delicate sugar sculptures or what seems a more-than-passable pizza base (and sauce), but so far the somewhat exorbitant cost of these machines means that they tend to find themselves out of the hands of regular people. However, if developed to work faster, with a broader ingredient base and at a much lower cost, 3D printers could serve to not only democratize food production but offer significant benefits to sustainability and nutrition.

“Food printing could allow consumers to print food with customized nutritional content, optimized based on biometric and genomic data,” Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia and developer of a prototype printer that produces nutrition bars and simple pastries, told The New York Times.

This may be the missing link between nutrition and personal medicine

“So instead of eating a slice of yesterday’s bread from the supermarket, you’d eat something baked just for you on demand. This may be the missing link between nutrition and personal medicine, and the food that’s on your table.”             

Lipson’s argument is possibly the strongest for the role that a 3D printer could play in the average kitchen. It may not have to provide all elements of a meal, as long as the parts it is dealing with are specifically created to best fulfil their user’s nutritional requirements. Correctly balanced with flavour, the ability for the machine to create the perfect low-calorie roast is a promising start.

Whether it will ever be truly possible for a 3D printer to make like a Star Trek replicator, however, and perfectly produce a whole meal is questionable. Natural Machines’ Foodini can produce mashed potato, so it doesn’t seem such a stretch to suggest it could create a roast potato, particularly with the promise that future models will have the power to cook, but if for space reasons alone it’s hard to imagine that such a machine could serve as a common household item and create a roast chicken.   

Could dodo soon grace your dinner plate?

The exquisite extinct: Dodo on the table of tomorrow?

On perhaps one of the stranger fronts of science is de-extinction: a Jurassic Park-like effort to bring back species that have been driven to extinction. While Jurassic Park is pretty much fantasy, our ability to revive extinct species is pretty much limited to those that have died out within the past few ten thousand years, it is theoretically possible that some day we could return such creatures as the woolly mammoth to life.

The science is still somewhat in its infancy, though it has come a long way since initial attempts, but the challenges faced are not only technological but philosophical. With many of the animals that scientists are looking to bring back having been initially wiped out by humans, do we have a responsibility to revive them? Or would we simply drive them to extinction again?

The challenges faced are not only technological but philosophical

“It’s gone very much further, very much more rapidly than anyone ever would’ve imagined,” says Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species.”

One answer, and one that brings its own host of ethical issues, is that de-extinctioned animals could serve as a particularly exotic choice of meat. Forget battery farmed turkey or chicken; enjoy a juicy slice of dodo. Undoubtedly such a meal would come with a hefty price tag, but for the gourmet it may well be considered worth it to taste something that few others ever will (imagine a scenario similar to the ortolan, a bird so endangered, and yet desired, that their sale is illegal across the European Union). 

The chances of this scenario are, however, somewhat unlikely, at least for a good long while. The revival of species such as the dodo is a slow process and, even provided the species could be returned from extinction, there would undoubtedly be incredibly strict laws regarding their protection. Perhaps, in a few decades, once the dodo population had grown significantly, they may be considered for consumption. For the foreseeable future, however, chicken is likely to remain on the menu.

 A meatball made of lab-grown meat. Image courtesy of Memphis Meats

Lab-grown meat: Bring the cultured back to Christmas

If you like the excitement of food having been spawned in a lab, but without the ethical quandary of eating away at an only recently revived population, lab-grown meat may be the thing for you. It’s backers prefer the term “cultured” meat and claim that such meat may actually be healthier for you than the regular kind, in addition to significantly reducing the environmental impact made by the traditional meat industry.

A 2011 study calculated that cultured meat would require 99% less land to produce than traditional production of steaks, sausages and bacon, as well as cutting down the water requirement for said land by 90%. It is worth noting, however, that a 2015 analysis of potential cultured meat production in the US highlighted how the increased generation of heat and electricity may balance out the environmental environments of lab-based growing.

“It’s really too soon to say what the environmental impacts of the first cultured meat products will be,” said the lead author of that analysis, Carolyn Mattick, an environmental engineer at Arizona State University, to the Washington Post. “However, new technologies often come with trade-offs.

“Take automobiles, for example. They provided huge advantages over horses in the early 1900s, but all of the cars on the road today cumulatively emit a lot of carbon dioxide. That is not to say we should give up our cars or stop researching cultured meat, but rather that we should be prepared to manage the downsides.”

The expected timeline for cultured meat’s entrance into mainstream consumption varies but tends to hover around the 2020/2021 mark, and even then at small scale. However, Silicon Valley startup Hampton Creek, which it should be noted has been subject to more than one controversy, has said it plans to have its own effort into supermarkets by 2018. While it will certainly be pricey to start with, it’s possible – though improbable – that within the next year, you could be buying meat produced entirely in a lab.

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