Future Tech: Food in a pill

All full up from a tablet-sized portion? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We've already taken a look at the automotive future by examining the possibility of driverless cars and flying cars. Now we turn our attention to food, specifically the potential for a pill that's breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one.

What's the big idea?

The ultimate fast food: all the nutrients your body needs packed into one little tablet. It would be ideal chow for astronauts or front-line soldiers and in fact, back in 2004, the US military was reportedly working on a project called Metabolic Dominance. It sought ways of maintaining battlefield performance for up to five days without taking in any 'traditional' calories.

What's happening now?

Metabolic Dominance has gone quiet - possibly through malnutrition because there is a question over the extent to which you could function eating pills for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 2008, Spanish researchers concluded that so-called nutraceuticals – nutritional supplements packed with the raw chemicals found in foods – could not deliver the same health benefits as the real thing.

Nevertheless, food engineering is on the brink of something huge – or rather, something very, very tiny. According to a parliamentary report, nanotechnology in food will be worth $5.6bn in 2012. That's right, scientists are tinkering with your Corn Flakes at the atomic level.

“You can design foods to enhance their health-giving properties,” says Professor Vic Morris, who studies nanofoods at the Institute of Food Technologies. “You could engineer it to be less fatty without changing its texture or design foods that reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes.” Best of all, you could do this with virtually anything you eat. A double bacon cheeseburger could one day lower your cholesterol, the side of fries it comes with cutting your body's absorption of fat. “With nanotechnology, you manipulate the very small containers that hold the active nutrients and deliver them to the body,” Morris explains. “And you can do this with almost any food.”

What's the hold-up?

The technology is more or less there, Morris says, and at least one major food company, Unilever, has admitted that it is watching the science closely. But regulation is way behind. Food technologists are terrified of the kind of Frankenstein food scares that resulted when GM foods were not properly explained to the public asked to gobble them down. Part of that means ensuring that there really are no adverse health effects.

“One of the concerns is about whether the particles actually stay in the body” Morris says. “Nanoparticles would be small enough to get into your body's cells. And a small number of them, including silver, are antimicrobial, so we don't know what would happen if they got into cells and what they'd do to DNA. Can they damage it?”

When could we see it?

Studies that investigate the long-term effects of nanofoods are likely to begin very soon. But the first nanofoods will likely enter the supermarket within the decade, Morris says, although whether they'll actually be labelled as such remains to be seen. “Products sold specifically to cut your risk of cancer may be 50 or 60 years away from the market, simply because we'd first need big clinical trials to prove they actually work in humans,” he says.

Timeline: 2020

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered

- Future Tech: Will we ever see driverless cars?

- Future Tech: Will we ever see a flying car?