If the flavor-tripping berry transforms the way we feed the world, could it signal a bright future for food technology?
The chef and inventor Homaro Cantu has printed images of sushi on edible paper, experimented with high-power lasers to cook the inside (but not the outside) of food, and patented a futuristic all-in-one cooking utensil. If this doesn't already sound like mealtime with Captain Kirk aboard the Enterprise, Cantu's calls his vegetable-juice-inkjet 3D-printer the same the name as Star Trek's meal synthesizers: "replicators."
At this year's TED conference, Cantu, who runs the Chicago restaurants MOTO and ING, spoke about the marvels of the so-called "miracle berry." The berry contains a protein called miraculin, which masks our receptors for sour tastes and makes everything taste sweet. Cantu thinks technological innovation in the kitchen could revolutionize the way we feed the world.
I spoke with him about the project from Chicago. (His friends call him Omar.)
GOOD: When did you first discover miracle berry?
Omar Cantu: Six years ago, a friend approached to say her friend was undergoing chemotherapy—could I create a printed food to go on her tongue? Now, here was an 87-year old woman who hadn’t eaten a meal in six months and was being fed intravenously. One of chemo’s side effects is that a patient can only taste rubbery and metallic things, so Ben Roche and I chewed on tinfoil and rubber car tires and tested thousands of ingredients. We found that miracle berry was most effective. That woman, Paula Perlis, left me a voicemail saying it actually worked. I still listen it to every now and then because it was pretty remarkable. The berry resets a chemo patient’s taste buds, whereas, in regular healthy people, it alters the affects of foods.
GOOD: How did you hit upon the idea that this berry might be useful in the developing world?
Cantu: I was in my backyard with my family a couple years ago and we had been playing around with miracle berry. I decided to try some grass. Then I said, “Why can’t we just take these wild plants and replicate real food out of it?” That would have a disruptive effect on the food chain. We’re not going to eliminate the demand for burgers or French fries or sugar, which is ingrained in us since we first cooked meat over a fire, but if we can get a product then we might be able to create a hyper-local economy where food can come out of your backyard with little or no agriculture input.
GOOD: Okay, assuming that would work, how do we get the berry to the people who need it most?
Cantu: I have friends and partners who are trying to graft it onto pine trees. If pine trees can just grow in the wild, then anybody could use this berry. More immediately, we’ve been trying to get the price of the berry down. We’re working on a powdered form and an inhalable form, which could compete with stevia, Truvia, and possibly even sugar once it’s scaled up.
GOOD: Let’s say that instead of eating berries we're inhaling them and instead of growing apples, we’re printing apple sauce with one of your replicators. Doesn’t that mean we’ll be eating "non-food" ingredients like fortified and flavored hydrocolloid gels?
Cantu: Had I never experimented with food, I would have never gotten to this point. I am definitely against using industrialized products like hydrocolloids. We try not to use that stuff at all unless absolutely necessary. In order to create the light bulb there were a million mistakes. So, in order to define what sustainable is, we have to experiment. We have to use the technology we have but use it in a much more responsible way.
GOOD: So you really believe that these new technologies, molecular gastronomy, modernist cooking, or whatever you want to call it, has a heart—it has philanthropic potential?
Cantu: I can’t speak for everybody. Some people do it just to get customers in seats. On my end, why on earth would you go out to a restaurant that is experimental, pay 50 percent more of the bill, if it has legs? If molecular gastronomy as a whole doesn’t find broader applications, then it could become a fad. Now, I don’t believe that what we do on a daily basis is molecular. That would entail splitting atoms. I think that this is just experimental, fun food. What we do at Cantu Designs, some of it is molecular, some of it's not. Some of it’s just for the hell of it just to see where it goes.
Top photo by G.D. Inglett, "Sweeteners: New Challenges and Concepts," 1974; second photo by G.D. Inglett, "Tropical Plants with Unusual Taste Properties," 1977; drawing via Homaro R. Cantu, Cooking and serving system and methods, US Patent 7690294.