Culinary tastes evolve in a hurry. One day everyone has an obnoxious bacon obsession, then a few years go by and people are fist-fighting in the produce section for the last bunch of kale. Things like cultural trends, environmental issues, and economic factors all play a role, but we're moving away from "Hey, we all like a new vegetable now" and toward far stranger eats that feel ripped from bad sci-fi stories. Like how ...

We're Going To Greater And Greater Lengths To Make Fake Meat

It wasn't long ago that ordering a veggie burger essentially meant you would receive something that probably looked like stomped Mario Goomba. But as plant-based meat substitutes with ominous names like the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger, and Cracked's very own Burger That Spits In the Face of God become more popular, there's a race to make fake meat that tastes like real meat without all the ranching that's a huge strain on the environment (and occasionally your conscience when you see a really cute cow video).

Beyond Meat was founded in 2009 and Impossible Food in 2011, but it took each a few years to get their products to market, and a few more to make said products not taste like salted hockey pucks. The texture was the first big problem -- fake meat didn't feel like meat -- and it was solved by heating soy before mixing it with a gel to give it a more fibrous vibe. Another breakthrough was using beet juice to give faux beef a pink hue and the bleeding effect that myoglobin provides in a moo-cow burger.

4 Ways Our Food Will Change Radically In A Few Decades
Ofer Kor/Wikimedia Commons
Or whatever kind of burger you're trying to emulate.

The latest changes came in June 2019, when Beyond rolled out a new model that used coconut butter and oil to add moistness and simulate marbling, and rice proteins to add more fiber (and, well, protein). They also tweaked the "aroma profile," as the pea protein that dominated the recipe had previously tended to smell like a rank compost pile if you got too close. Further refinements will continue as more restaurants and fast food chains offer plant meat options. And they will. In 2014, the plant meat market was at $553 million, but it hit $2.2 billion in 2018, and is predicted to experience strong growth over the next two decades.

Now, they're not exactly health food just because they're made of plants; while better for you than the red meat they're aiming to replace, they should still be considered an occasional treat. That's because you have to take certain nutritional shortcuts to make a dense collection of plants and oils taste like beef. (And the joints that serve it, like Burger King, tend to pile a metric shitloadogram of salt on top of that.) But the real potential impact is environmental, as reducing American beef consumption by 70% -- which would be more in line with the global average of beef consumption -- could cut carbon emissions by 35%. And combating climate change, according to intensive research by Cracked's Science Department, would be good.

The Edible Insect Industry Is Poised For Growth

Insects are an excellent source of nutrition which most people of the Western world consider less appetizing than their own poop. But there are already 2 billion people on the planet who include bugs in their diet and think you're weird for thinking they're weird, and they're not exactly wrong. Go to Mexico or Thailand, and bugs are just another crispy snack or easy protein source for kicking lunch up a notch.

Like with plant-based meat, the key is that crickets and other critters require far less land and water to raise, which means far less greenhouse gases are emitted to put ants on your antipasto instead of beef. A kilogram of cow (that's 8.8 patriotic American quarter-pounders) requires 10 kg of feed to produce, while a kilo of cricket meat requires only 1.7 kg of feed. Bugs are also less prone to disease (mad beetle disease isn't really a thing) and require just 10% of the land that cows do. And while driving by a meal worm farm would be less scenic than a majestic herd of steers on a road trip, that's a sacrifice we're just going to have to make.

The insect market is estimated to reach $722.9 million in revenue by 2024, with beetles leading the way. In America, the industry is currently powered by the least "icky" delivery methods -- crickets that have been ground into powder as a flavorless addition to soups and bakery products, or processed into unadventurous foods like protein bars and chips, where there's nary a thorax in sight. Pet food is also being targeted as a good market for bugs (given that your dog will eat its own poop, they're not exactly concerned about where the protein in their chow comes from).

But the real potential for growth is in convincing Americans that it's not gross to add scorpions to your salad or shovel handfuls of honey mustard stinkbugs into your mouth while watching football. (You'll watch 16 Browns games a season but are too good to eat bugs, Cleveland?)

Now time to sit back and wait for Taco Bell to drop the Cricket Loco Burrito Supreme.

From a culinary perspective, the strength of insects is their diversity. You can drench them in any flavor and add them to any dish. Crickets are earthy and nutlike, grubs are meaty and savory, locusts almost taste like seafood. Restaurants here and there are offering bug-based dishes to demonstrate this, but ultimately, consumers will have to buy the marketing angle of "You may think that gnawing on an entire grasshopper is gross, but what's really gross is developing heart disease from the nasty fast food that's slowly strangling the planet."

That doesn't mean Grady O'Grasshopper's will be a well-established casual dining chain serving fire ant jalapeno poppers a decade from now, but if enough people can be convinced, then good protein can be made available to the masses without being a strain on the environment or the wallets of consumers. Big names are betting they will. Nestle and Pepsi are exploring the market, and brands like Whole Foods and Loblaws are stocking bug products. And if it still just sounds too gross to you, remember that 50 years ago, Americans thought it was insane to eat raw fish, and now American sushi restaurants collectively make $2 billion a year.

Dairy Is Struggling While Plant Milk Booms

Milk is such a fundamental staple of the human diet that it's difficult to imagine life without it. (Except for that ill-fated St. Patrick's Day when we poured Guinness on our Lucky Charms.) But America's per capita dairy milk consumption decreased from 247 pounds in 1975 to 149 pounds in 2017, while non-dairy milks like almond, soy, our ill-fated asparagus milk venture, etc. saw sales increase 61% between 2012 and 2017. And they're poised to keep growing -- one British oat milk company has seen a 1,250% boom in production since 2016.

A plus for the plant and nut milk future is that their benefits outweigh the dread of saying "nut milk" in the wrong context and getting laughed at. A glass of dairy milk requires 10 times as much land to produce as plant alternatives. Even almonds, the thirstiest of plants, only require a little over half the water that dairy needs. Not only that, but greenhouse gas emissions of dairy milk production are nearly triple that of its leafy competitors. A cultural shift to chugging nut milk could reduce emissions and reclaim land for greener purposes.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers (who are also facing other industry issues, like trade wars) are already feeling the pinch. Thousands of American dairy farms have closed, while others are diversifying into plant milk or unrelated products, like maple or hemp for CBD, to compensate for the $1.1 billion drop in sales in 2018. So get ready for a wave of commercials featuring patriotic cows shilling syrup and miracle fixes to your pain and anxiety.

Like plant meat, plant and nut milk aren't necessarily any better for you than dairy milk. (Some products may even be worse.) But perceived health benefits, lactose intolerance, an uptick in veganism, concerns over animal cruelty, and a vague sense that plants are somehow just better for you (even as cheese and ice cream sales grow) are all fueling the switch. There are concerns that the trend will peak, but buying a $25 pack of oat milk under some half-informed impression that it's better for you might end up being a compelling way to combat climate change.

The Next Big Food Trend Could Be Algae

One of the biggest obstacles in food production is fresh water, because until our sacrifices to Captain Planet are finally answered, there's only so much of it to go around. About 70% of the planet's fresh water is committed to growing crops and raising farm animals, and food production will need to increase as the world population continues to grow, especially in those uppity developing countries that keep being all "We would like to have our basic nutritional needs met while you stuff three dozen chicken nuggets down your gullets every week."

This brings us to algae. Humans have been eating it for a long, long time, but in the West it has been relegated to a niche food getting packed into smoothies or tossed on dishes at your local vegan cafe. You know, hippie shit. But algae has two major factors working in its slimy favor: 1) It's packed full of protein, vitamins, and other nutritious goodies, and 2) it doesn't need fresh water to grow. It barely needs anything to grow, even if you set up an algae shop in the middle of a desert. It's the pet rock of crops.

And so a variety of startups are building algae farms. This is far more speculative than the other examples, so maybe we'll never hear about these companies again until a bizarre scandal involving a CEO who getting caught selling wet toilet paper he spray-painted green. But if they are going to work, they'll need to overcome algae's reputation as a smelly green slime that tastes like licking a wet lawnmower bag.

Some algae is gross, but there are thousands upon thousands of strains. In one experiment, a strain was bred to taste like bacon. More conventionally, the strains these companies are working with taste salty when shoved in your mouth fresh from the farm, but are largely intended to be used as a dietary supplement, as a base ingredient in foods like noodles and plant-based meats, or as additions to a variety of everyday dishes without impacting their look or taste.

4 Ways Our Food Will Change Radically In A Few Decades
Wajedram/Adobe Stock
Think you could start eating algae? Trick question; you already are.

This doesn't mean you'll one day be eating algae burgers on an algae bun, with an algae cookie for dessert if you've earned it. But it could be a cheap and easy way for a whole lot of people to get the protein they're currently getting from those nefarious resource-hogging (cowing?) cows, or not getting at all. We need to come up with some kind of solution as the planet is subjected to more and more strain, so maybe give algae a try before we're all asked to eat a different green nutritional supplement with supposedly miraculous traits.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

For more, check out 6 Ways The Food Industry Tricks You Into Eating Garbage:

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