In dystopian fiction, future food is often something else in disguise. Normal-looking burgers, cakes, or other foods are secretly moulded algae or vat-protein of some ilk, the idea being that we've run out of space or money to feed ourselves the usual way.

In reality, this mass-produced food filler is already here. And it's not because we've outstripped our ability to grow or raise other sources of nutrition. It's because it's convenient and inexpensive for the people who make processed food. The same is true for the people who eat it, but it isn't something we necessarily know we're eating when we sit down to a microwave burrito.

There are a variety of food ingredients that could fall into this category, from gelatins to sausage meat slurries. One is probably familiar to most readers: in the last couple of years, there was a controversy about finely minced, disinfected beef scraps, which the US broadcaster ABC dubbed “pink slime”, in processed meat products. The stuff did not make people sick, although the decontamination process gave some the heebee-jeebees. The objection was in many ways an aesthetic one. (The online magazine Slate published an interesting history of the stuff and the inflammatory name, which provoked a lawsuit against ABC.) The product has made a comeback recently, though, in part because it is a very cheap and efficient way to make a meat product, and the droughts wracking American cattle country mean that beef prices are skyrocketing.

Another future food – one that's wider spread yet perhaps less well-known – is made of soybeans. And this particular goop is impressive in its versatility.

After millennia of use in Asia, the soybean arrived late in the West. But by 1888, a French company was making bread for diabetics with soybean flour, thanks to the bean's exceedingly low carbohydrate levels. More products followed, and in 1921, an Austrian inventor who took out a patent on making soy flour called it “manna for the hungry” in an article for the Times of London, citing its cheapness and nutritional value. During World War II, these same features made ground-up soybeans, camouflaged in other products, a frequent choice for food aid and rations. By the end of the war soybean goop was a booming business in the US (for these and more details on the history of soy, check out this ebook published by the Soyinfo Center.)

A big step towards the modern use of soy as a stand-in for something else can be traced to the 1960s, when food scientists came up with a way to make soy protein with a spongy texture. This process starts with ground-up soybeans that have had the oil and sometimes sugar and fibre removed. The resulting white powder is mixed in industrial machines with water or steam to make a kind of dough. The dough is then fed through an extruder, something you're not likely to see in the average home kitchen but a real staple of processed foods. In these whirring engines of cookery the dough is forced through a tube at high pressure with just the right combination of moisture and heat so that it undergoes a chemical reaction, with the proteins in it unwinding and forming a kind of mesh. The rope of protein that emerges is sliced into rubbery nuggets than can stand in for meat in all kinds of food. (For this article I spent far too long mesmerised by videos of soy protein extruders on YouTube, many of them filmed by shaky-handed individuals in Asian factories, with romantic soundtracks.)

Now you can find soy protein in many products – not just veggie burgers and other forms of pseudo-meat, but also in ground beef, baked goods, energy bars, burrito fillings, salad dressing, pasta, whipped toppings, soups, and lunch meat. Soy protein doesn't taste like much, so you can make it taste like almost anything. It can assume a good variety of textures, so you can make it look and feel like almost anything too, and like play dough, it is easily moulded by machines into a kaleidoscope of shapes.

From a nutritional perspective, it's not a bad addition to ground beef and other meat products. It's certainly lower in fat, and in terms of protein produced per acre, it makes better use of natural resources than livestock husbandry. Most importantly, from the manufacturer's and potentially the consumer's perspective, it is often very cheap compared to what it is replacing.

It really is the future food of science fiction. It's not surprising that food manufacturers don't like to tout this fact. The marketing slogan “just like the food people eat when they are trapped on spaceships!” doesn't have a ring to it. Yet such foods and processes are now an integral part of the modern food industry. It's something to think about the next time you bite into a burger or a cake. 

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