You ease open the refrigerator door to take stock after returning to town from your summer home. The situation isn't so grim after all: there's that romaine lettuce you bought six months ago, still looking fresh and crisp. A chunk of Parmesan, picked up--what year is this again? And down on the bottom shelf: vegetables of various vintages and, there it is, that nice piece of cooked, shrink-wrapped synthetic chicken. It has been in your refrigerator longer than some of your neckties have been in your closet. Just as you realize that the scratchiness in the back of your throat is not going away, you come across a little bottle of antiviral salad dressing. That clinches it. Chicken Caesar salad it is.
Although that scenario may sound a little strange, tomorrow's world of high-tech foods would most likely seem as fantastic to us as microwaves, frozen meals and today's wide selection of produce would have appeared to a cook just 50 years ago, let alone 100. Many of the details of how food will taste and look, and how it will be packaged and prepared, will depend on those most elusive of intangibles, consumer tastes and preferences. Nevertheless, several trends seem to be gathering momentum, offering glimpses of what and how we might be eating early in the next century.
One is the explosive growth lately in sales of dietary supplements and the advent of so-called functional foods, which contain additives that confer physiological benefits beyond simple nutrition. In addition, tasty new forms of protein--including steaks and fillets grown in chambers rather than as part of an animal--as well as packaging that lets produce breathe and treatments that kill harmful bacteria with radiation or pressure are all likely to be a part of the 21st-century dinner table.
ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE phenomena in nutrition in recent years is the rise of dietary supplements and, in particular, of "sports supplements" aimed at weight lifters and other physically active people. In 2005 Americans spent more than $21 billion on dietary supplements, according to Grant Ferrier, editor of the Nutrition Business Journal in San Diego. About $2.2 billion of that total was spent on sports nutrition.
Such supplements could be just the first entries in a burgeoning market for supercharged food. "Most of the sports supplements are designed to produce benefits centered on control of body composition and energy," says A. Scott Connelly, founder of Met-Rx Engineered Nutrition, now headquartered in Bohemia, N.Y. "People are realizing that the simple calorie theory of body fat control is hopelessly inadequate. For example, supplementing regular dietary intake with lean protein assists the body in burning fat," he maintains.
Connelly further notes that many staple foods such as rice and potatoes are poor sources of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Although nutritional supplement companies have long recognized this problem and marketed daily multivitamins and minerals to meet it, "I can tell you as a doctor that human beings don't like to take pills," he insists. "Probably less than 25 percent of people with high blood pressure comply with their prescription. Increasing nutrient density [of traditional foods] has to be a primary goal."
As an example, Connelly cites pizza, "the nutritional Antichrist." Met-Rx's nutritionists have experimented with the humble pizza, the quintessential food for the masses. Met-Rx's reengineered nine-inch pie has only 650 calories. Moreover, the enhanced slice contains 75 grams of a high-quality protein--about four times more than usual. It also has 160 percent of the recommended daily allowance of calcium and 300 percent more lycopene. This plant pigment, which gives the tomato its red color, is also an antioxidant that has been linked in some studies to reduced incidence of heart disease and prostate cancer.
Where might it all lead? If you are waiting for a nutrient-packed food pill, a favorite of 1950s science fiction, you will be disappointed. According to Connelly, food will have to be "in sync with current taste and texture preferences. We won't be successful in trying to get people to abandon their tastes for sweets and fats."