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Q&A: Larissa Zimberoff on food and technology

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The journalist and author tells Tina Nielsen about her path to writing her book about the role of technology in the food we eat

After a career working in technology and food – and writing about both – Larissa Zimberoff has published her book Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.

What is your background?

I like to say that I worked in tech during “Internet 1.0.” This was in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a decade being immersed in the ways of Silicon Valley, I moved to New York to attend graduate school. I earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing.

After graduation, I decided to combine my love of food, with my interest in technology, eventually focusing on writing about the food-tech sector.

Why did you set out to write this book, what’s the aim of it?

I get questions from people all the time — Should I eat this? What’s this like? What does this mean? Is it any good for me? Is it delicious? I wrote the book primarily to answer their questions.

I also have Type-1 diabetes, which gives me a unique view into food. In my book, I write: “I see through food.” I look at macronutrients, which are the key components in what we eat – protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber – to determine how much insulin to take. But as an insider, I could see that our foods were becoming extremely complex, to the point that I felt most people would not and could not understand what was happening. It was even becoming harder for me.

My interest in telling the story of New Foods (what I call them in my book), along with understanding what these New Foods are – the startups creating them, how they were constructing them, what they taste like, if they were actually healthy for humans – was the leading goal in writing my book.

Where does your interest in food and tech come from?

I spent over a decade working in the internet industry beginning with the very first wave of startups. I also love food, which comes from a few places – helping my Jewish dad cook Chinese food as a kid, learning how my grandma made her famous lemon cake, and big Sunday brunches with bagels and lox.

In 2009, I volunteered at a non-profit cooking school for two years. I think that’s where my interests were cemented. In grad school, food always seemed to thread its way into what I was writing. Later, I decided I didn’t want to be a generalist, and that I needed a theme for my writing. At the same time, accelerators and incubators were cropping up in New York and San Francisco. I began attending their events, and it all snowballed from there.

How do you see the current picture of technology in food?

It might appear that technology is changing what we eat, but scientists have been tinkering with food in labs for over a century. A quick shorthand for the evolution of industrialized food includes canning, frozen vegetables, Wonderbread, instant oatmeal, and SnackWell’s.

However, what’s happening today has many differences. One: technology is re-creating the foods we know, versus simply finding ways to make it last longer or taste better. Two: the investment community is jumping in – from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to private venture capital firms. Three: publications are clamoring to cover every bit of news. We read about the advancements in cultured meat, for example, and we talk about it and spread the news long before it’s even a possibility. We almost make it happen before it happens.

Do people worry about the role of tech in food?

If they’re not worried, they should be! I think there are some that are concerned about the evolution in our food – a departure from the real, the natural, food that relies on the traditional methods that we’ve known for centuries. But there are just as many who are eagerly anticipating its arrival because of the world-saving narrative. The promise of these New Foods is that ending our reliance on industrial animal agriculture will help end cruelty to animals; it will be climate positive because it requires less water and crops to sustain it; and it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as methane that comes largely from cows.

Even though we know little about the health ramifications of these New Foods, how can we argue with that? In between those groups that are pro and con, there’s a huge segment of the world that has no idea this is coming and has no plans to change the way they eat.

In your view, is there enough transparency in this area? Do people really understand what they eat?

The truth is that while our food is becoming so highly engineered that it can’t be made in our homes, we’ve been on this path since the 1970s, when food went from kitchens to factories. Most of us don’t take the time to scrutinize how our food makes it to our plate, but soon it will be an entirely different realm of science fiction that creates our dinner.

Red meat cells grown in a nutrient-rich medium, and then replicated again and again in giant bioreactors until there’s enough mass to be formed into a steak, for example. Many of these New Foods are steeped in intellectual property (IP) that’s protected by patents and lawyers. This means the questions we have will go unanswered. The most successful startups in this burgeoning food-tech sector will be the ones that find a way to share as much as they possibly can in simple ways that we can understand it.

Where do you see developments heading next?

We’re going to continue seeing major investment into these New Foods and the entire food-tech sector. Consider anything that comes from animals as fair game to be reinvented with science — gelatin, leather, fat, for example. Money will help to fuel rapid advancements, and so too will any massive enivornmental disasters that come our way including droughts or floods that affect the health of the planet or human related disasters such as Covid.

There are areas that I think are exciting, and that don’t require quite as many layers of techno wizardry. One example is precision fermentation, which startups are using to re-create dairy proteins that can be used in yogurt, milk and ice cream products show great. This same basic method can be used to ferment fungi, like mycelium that can be turned into a new center-of-plate protein.

 

Follow Larissa and buy her book

I write a newsletter about what’s catching my attention each week in food. It’s a quick, fun read. You can sign up here. In the US, you can buy “Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat” at org. For international sales you can use bookdepository.com. Like to watch or listen? You can catch up on my appearances and podcasts here.