If you'd told science fiction writers in the 1930s that food in the early 2000s would be all about heirloom vegetables, micronutrients and artisanal pickles, they'd have laughed you right out of the decade.
Back in the mid-20th Century, everybody believed the future of food was fully artificial. Pills, bars, goop, pastes, wafers and syrups were a staple of science fiction and futurism, and scientists did their best to make these things a reality. And then, they fell from popularity — probably starting with Soylent Green and other cautionary tales.
Here's the long, strange history of artificial food items in science fiction. And why food pills probably wouldn't be that good for you in any case.
Food pills are so retro-futuristic that they even make an appearance in William Gibson's short-story/commentary on retro-futurism "The Gernsback Continuum."
This idea actually got its start before the start of the 20th Century — at the 1893 World's Fair, when suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease proposed a scientific solution to the kitchen drudgery forced upon women (little did she know that science would actually lessen kitchen drudgery via the dishwasher, microwave and the Slap Chop.)
Writing in an American Press Association essay, Lease suggested people would consume
"in condensed form from the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juices of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved."
From these humble anti-housework beginnings, the food pill became a science fiction staple. Food pills would feed an overpopulated earth, reduce mass on interstellar flights, or provide the perfect scientific nutrition in domed utopian cities.
Food pills in science and science fiction
The 20th Century would explore food pills in contexts from disturbing to humorous (and humorously disturbing).
Expansive food pills, the just-add-water-to-get-a-whole-meal type, have been prominent since the beginning. In 1910, the humorist Stephen Leacock's satirical article "The New Food" took a dark look at what happens when the baby swallows a tiny morsel that contains all of Christmas dinner, including: "turkey, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, mince pie," for thirteen people (hint: the baby explodes).
Things didn't seem any better in 1911, when Hugo Gernsback proposed the "Scientific Restaurant" in his serialized novella "Ralph 124C 41+." Gernsback envisioned a restaurant where tubes would pump easily digestible food slurries right into people's mouths. He described the restaurant thusly:
A flexible tube hung down to which fastened a silver mouthpiece, that one took out of a disinfecting solution . . . . The silver mouthpiece was then placed in the mouth and one pressed upon a red button. If spices, salt or peper were wanted, there was a button for each one which merely had to be pressed till the food was as palatable as wanted. Another button controlled the temperature of the food. Meats, vegetables and other eatables, were all liquefied and were prepared with the utmost skill to make them palatable. . . . They did not have to use a knife and fork, as was the custom in former centuries. Eating had become a pleasure.
Personally, this sounds less like pleasure and more like modern cattle and pig feeding in factory farms.
In 1913, The Patchwork Girl of Oz included the Square Meal Tablet, invented by Professor Wobblebug. As a single pill that replaced a whole meal this was particularly child friendly version, which included three kinds of dessert (apple dumplings, ice cream and chocolate). But by 1919's The Magic of Oz Professor Wobblebug's students revolted over being required to eat only Square Meal Tabets.
The 1930 film Just Imagine included food pills alongside a number of other science fiction tropes. A musical special-effects spectacular, this early talkie gives us a 1930s man revived from death by scientists in 1980s New York City. There are 250-story buildings, hover cars, alpha-numeric sequences instead of names, dirigibles, Martian evil twins, and tons of other stuff. Food pills, which can substitute for a roast beef dinner, surprise the poor yokel from the 1930. But not as much as the existence of drink pills: cocktails like highballs in pill form. The drink pills' ability to get people drunk almost instantly is part of their appeal. Apparently, no one realized we would invent the shotglass before 1980.
When the space program got going in the 1960s, food pills came back in a big way. Yuri Gagarin ate tubes of meat and chocolate in the Soyez capsule in 1961, and science fiction writers kept pace. The Jetsons, which premiered in 1962 had meal replacement pills (which included burned toast), while 1963's Lost in Space had protein pills that provided all the nutrition a person would need in a day.
Doctor Who was another early ‘60s show that kept pace with future food. In the 1963 episode "The Daleks" Barbara and Ian ordered bacon and eggs from the Tardis food machine. The machine gives them blocks of tofu-like food that apparently tasted like bacon and eggs. The food machine wasn't used a whole lot, though in the Battle of Time comics storyline, they use the pills from the food machine to overfeed (and explode) the "Gluttonoid Menace." In 1964's series "The Sensorites," foil wrapped food cubes were served on the spaceship. In the 1967 series "The Tomb of the Cybermen," Victoria is offered a chicken dinner pill by an archaeologist in the future. And in "Planet of the Daleks," the Thals eat strange space rations, wrapped in foil.
In real life, NASA led the charge into scientific food. Tubes used in the Mercury era were replaced with gelatin coated cubes in the Gemini missions. In 1965, 24 men volunteered to eat nothing but synthetic food for 19 weeks. Only fifteen made (the other just gave up). The corn syrup based food left the men perfectly healthy, but miserable. In the early ‘70s you could even buy (and presumably consume) something from Pillsbury called "Space Food Sticks."
Movies were in the scientific food game too. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey divided sharply from the book when it replaced the astronauts' fresh food with goop. 1972's Silent Running included colored blocks of "food" reminiscent of the ones produced by the TARDIS' food machine.
The death knell of food pills in popular science fiction (not counting things like rations in military and combat situations) was probably 1973's Soylent Green. It expressed the horror of a food system completely detached from nature.
As Michael Pollan explained in his article "The Future of Food":
The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization. Not only did processed foods contain chemicals, the postwar glamour of which had been extinguished by DDT and Agent Orange, but products like Wonder Bread represented the worst of white-bread America, its very wheat ‘bleached to match the bleached-out mentality of white supremacy,' in the words of an underground journalist writing in The Quicksilver Times.
Why food pills are probably bad for you
It's not just the politics of food that threw off the search for food pills. There are major technical problems with food pills including that they ignore the human body's basic need for a high-fiber diet. While it's possible we'll solve the problems of colon cancer and constipation in the future, current technology requires the healthy human body consume a minimum of 38 grams of fiber daily.
Another difficulty is getting enough calories into a single pill. Lard is one of the most calorically dense foodstuffs on the planet. You would have to consume more than a cup to get the recommended 2000 calories a day. Though most of us would be fine consuming 1 cup of lard a day, to reach 1849 calories. And while high-fructose corn syrup is denser than regular forms of sugar, it still only clocks in at four calories a gram (identical to honey and regular corn syrup) — meaning you'd need to consume 500 grams of the stuff daily.
There's also the fact, which has stymied more than one dieter, that people have two different signals for hunger. One is a chemical signal that you've consumed enough calories and nutrients. The other is from the stomach and relates more directly to "feeling full". Food pills won't work unless they can mimic this feeling.
But that doesn't mean that scientists have given up on creating super foods. NASA is still trying to perfect space food, and long distance athletes are experimenting with all types of high calorie gels. Perhaps the most exciting development in scientific foods is the ridiculously named "Plumpy'nut," a paste made from fortified peanut butter and therapeutic milk paste, used to help children suffering from the effects of malnourishment caused by famine. And unlike most food pills, it's supposed to taste pretty good.