Technically Food by Larissa Zimberoff

Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat

I felt compelled to read this book for a number of reasons. I have to admit that the top reason for my reading was because as someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, I've always been extremely conscious of the food I put into my body. I also work for a technology startup, and I'm completely fascinated by the various foods coming to market today. Just like Larissa states in her intro, "when I spot a new food at the store, I look at the nutrition facts panel before I pour it into a bowl." I also do the same thing. While it used to be just about the calories for me, it's more than that now. I have a keen interest in what macronutrients the food will provide me. 

I've had a lot of Boost and Ensure throughout various treatment stints, and it's a label I've inspected in close detail many times. For me, at least, I've always seen this as a great source of all kinds of vitamins and nutrients since it's packed full of Vitamins A, D, and E, as well as iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. It's also been critical in my recovery at times. 

I also felt compelled to read about the types of foods I now see at my favourite restaurants, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and futuristic foods that I've read articles about, like Soylent. The articles I've read are typically short, and most likely sponsored by the very foods I'm reading about, so the depth of information is pretty surface level. 

I was hoping this book would give me a more in depth look at the new food wave taking over our restaurants, and give me more of an idea of what exactly I'm putting into my body when I eat these foods. The author, Larissa Zimberoff, promises "the first comprehensive survey of the food companies at the forefront of this booming business." Technically Food claims to examine the trade-offs of replacing food with technology-driven approximations, with the chapters diving into algae, fungi, pea protein, cultured milk and eggs, upcycled foods, and so much more. 

Larissa's own journey began when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Her education started when she was told how to calculate the grams of carbohydrates in a meal, an important factor for those with diabetes. She states, "my knowledge gives me an edge: I understand food on a molecular level. I think of this as my superpower." 

It was so interesting to learn about the different kinds of algae, how they benefit us, and how startup companies have tried (and failed) to bring them to market. 

An example Larissa gives in this chapter is Soylent, perhaps one of the most well-known brands on the new foods market. She states, that this product, which "originally included algal oil, became one of the first truly weird foods out there."

According to their website, "each Soylent product contains a complete blend of everything
the body needs to thrive."

In the algae chapter, I loved learning about the various startups that are incorporating this abundant and nutritious food. One in particular that Larissa touches on is Nonbar, from a company called nonfood. The name was enough to intrigue me to look it up. I was planning to order one but according to the website, they're sold out. So either the product is too hot of a commodity, or they stopped selling it. Nonbar states that it's "the first nutrition bar with algae as its primary ingredient." 

Larissa mentions in Technically Food that it wasn't very sweet, and she couldn't say she liked it, but she kept eating it. After her third bite, she was in, began to relish it, and was sad to see it go. It looks like space food to me, so intriguing in its silver wrapping. The product itself, looks like a bar of soap, and quite possibly the most unappetizing thing I've ever seen. I'll have to order one for myself when they're back in stock. 

Courtesy of nonbar

The next chapter that Larissa dives into is fungi, and in particular, using it as a steak substitute. In this chapter, Zimberoff starts out by talking about the meat substitute, Quorn. Being from the United Kingdom, where it first launched in 1985, I'm very familiar with this product. I'm familiar with the taste, branding, and line of products. However, I have to admit, I had no idea of its contents, or that it was a fungi based food. Quorn is made mycoprotein, and according to their website, "The main ingredient of mycoprotein is Fusarium venenatum, an ascomycete, a type of fungus that naturally occurs in the soil."

This informative chapter also touches on how companies are using mycelium to improve food. Larissa talks about MycoTechnology, a company that has "no plans to sell its own products in a supermarket." She first heard of the company when they announced that they had found a way to remove gluten from bread and pasta. According to the book, "the resulting pasta made from this mycelium-treated flour wasn't 100 percent gluten-free, but it was close." As someone with a celiac boyfriend, a product like this would be absolutely life changing if they could pull it off, so I look forward to following along as they continue testing. 

A chapter I found particularly interesting was the pea protein one, as someone with a soy intollerance. The chapter's subheading is, "Finally, Something That Could Topple Big Soy." My experience with pea protein has only ever been at a Vancouver-based custom smoothie company, Body Energy Club, where I opt for pea protein instead of the soy based one. Beyond that, I didn't know much. In this chapter, Larissa talks about meeting with a company called Ripple, who claim to make a plant-based milk, from peas! Zimberoff tried the milk, and also a pea yogurt from the company. 

"I glanced down at the dull colors, and with a new appreciation for toddlers everywhere, I made an "icky" face in my mind," she says. 

Courtesy of Ripple

Perhaps the chapter I found the most interesting was the plant-based burgers one, since these burgers seem to be just about everywhere these days. From Beyond Meat to the Impossible Burger, they appear to be the hottest menu item at most restaurants I frequent in Vancouver. Larissa talks about both of these companies in the book, stating that "the plant-based meat category grew by 29 percent in the past two years, to $5 billion." It seems like a lot, especially considering that traditional burgers only grew by 2 percent. Zimberoff asks, why are investors betting that these new iterations of the meatless burger can succeed where others have failed? And what does our obsession with burgers in all their forms tell us about ourselves? 

I learned from the book that Beyond is the startup with the second-biggest IPO valuation in the last decade. That's got to say something about where food is headed in the years to come. I've tried Beyond at A&W Canada, in a breakfast sandwich and also a regular burger, and while it doesn't taste much like a regular burger, I surprisingly prefer the taste, and opt for it wherever it's available. And I'm not even a vegetarian. 

Beyond Meat Burger, A&W Canada (it's excellent)

The book concludes with, what are we eating in twenty years? Larissa leaves us with some important questions. 

"Do we eat to save the planet, the animals, or ourselves? What about traditional foods from cultures already threatened by a food system that doesn't serve their basic needs?" 

She summarizes that the reasons behind the COVID-19 pandemic might point us to putting an end or at least a reduction in eating animals raised in industrial feedlots. Zimberoff's hope is that investors will find reasons to direct their fortunes toward bettering the things we already know can feed the world. 

I absolutely loved reading about all the startups and what they're up to. It makes me question what the future of food will truly look like. I think this book is so thoroughly and thoughtfully researched. It's laid out in a way that makes it easy for the reader to digest (pardon the pun). I loved the facts laid out at the end of each chapter, which makes for a great takeaway from each section. 

Technically Food made for a fascinating read, and if you have any interest in the future of food, or even what you put into your body today, especially as you bite into that Beyond Meat burger or whatever other new foods you find yourself eating, I highly recommend this book. Within its pages are exactly what's promised in the summary. 

About the Author

by Winni Wintermeyer

Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance journalist who covers the intersection of food, technology, and business. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and many others. Zimberoff often presents on, moderates, and leads panels on food tech including at Stanford, reThink Food at CIA/Napa, and IACP. She splits her time between San Francisco, California, and New York City.

Technically Food is available to purchase at Indigo and on Kobo. Check GoodReads for additional retailers. 

Thank you to Manda and Abrams for the gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

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