Could bars like these be the future of food?
Sean Raspet wants to change the way you think about “fake” food. His company, Nonfood, is devoted to creating and selling food products made entirely of algae. Yep, the green stuff. He got the idea while working as a flavorist-in-residence at Soylent—makers of liquid goo food substitutes that occasionally result in violent diarrhea—where he helped design meals-in-a-bottle like Soylent Nectar. (Raspet claims that Nectar tastes like Fruity Pebbles, though online critics have described it as “like vinyl, and latex, and the dust of my grandfather’s ashes.”)
Now, Raspet runs Nonfood along with co-founder and fellow artist Lucy Chinen. There’s only one item available for presale right now, a “Nonbar” made from algae protein. Next, Raspet plans on releasing a chocolate bar sans chocolate. “It has the look, consistency, and flavor of chocolate, which I’ve designed through artificial flavors,” he says.
We sat down with Raspet to talk about the future of food, why you can’t trust your own nose, and how to build the perfect apple.
Do you think we’re heading towards a future in which most of what we eat is synthetic or artificial? And if so, is that a good thing?
Well first of all, this division between natural and artificial, I think it’s a blurry line. It doesn’t have any meaning, from a scientific perspective, to say that something is artificial.
It doesn’t? So according to science, there’s no difference between an apple from a tree and one made in a lab?
Every flavor is just a collection of different molecules—whether it comes from a plant or it’s an artificial flavor—that’s put together in specific proportions that gives you a certain sensory effect. I’m very interested in breaking flavors down into their molecular components and looking at the underlying building blocks.
That sounds very depressing.
If it looks like an orange and it tastes like an orange but it’s not really an orange, then everything is a lie and I must be living in a dystopian future where everybody wears matching grey jumpsuits.
I understand, sure. Part of that skepticism comes from large food companies creating products that don’t necessarily have such great nutrition profiles, and they cover it up with artificial flavor. But a product like Soylent isn’t doing that. There’s nothing wrong with artificial flavors if you’re still getting good nutrition.
Has working as a flavorist changed your relationship with food?
Sure. I consider food more of an intellectual experience, or something that’s as much about curiosity as it is about deliciousness. I’ve been looking recently at how aroma relates to our perceptions of flavor. Roughly 80 percent of the flavor experience is aroma.
Can an aroma be deceptive?
Most of what we smell is deceptive. What we think we smell isn’t always what we actually smell. For instance, there’s a molecule called hexanal, which is a compound that creates the pleasant smell of cut grass.
It’s a comforting, happy smell.
But it’s really grass saying, “Help me!” It’s a compound released by grass that’s all about communicating distress.
Oh wow. So every time we smell a freshly cut lawn and smile, we’re really smiling at the weeping from a grass massacre?
Right. And that odor attracts wasps, because long before lawn mowers, it was associated with caterpillars eating the grass, and the wasps would feed on the caterpillars. There’s this whole complex world of chemical communication happening without us even realizing it.
What kind of synthetic food do you enjoy purely on an intellectual level? Maybe you can’t stand the taste, but you’re fascinated by what went into making it?
Cool Ranch Doritos are pretty interesting to me from an engineering perspective. I’m also fascinated by blue raspberry flavor.
Like in a Slurpee?
Yeah. I don’t necessarily like the taste so much, but the concept, from an artistic perspective, is fascinating. The idea of being a little playful with the idea of nature, and having a raspberry flavor that’s blue for some reason.