It's 2016, So Where Are All the Meal-Replacement Pills Already?

As far back as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, people were speculating and writing about the inevitable arrival, one day, of a food pill that would replace conventional meals.

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Oct 7 2016, 2:00pm

Foto von 27147 via Flickr

Somebody really needs to ask Elon Musk, and the other notable futurists of the world, what ever happened to the idea of a meal-in-a-pill.

Whether we're talking about the pill-popping Jetsons, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, or the 1930s sci-fi musical Just Imagine, our culture is positively littered with the idea of some sort of bite-sized, synthetic, meal-replacement pill. Hell, even the notoriously technophobic Tolkien created a fictional meal-replacing superfood, Lembas, that is eerily analogous to the concept of a meal-in-a-pill. And just because Roald Dahl chose chewing gum as his futuristic sustenance vehicle of choice in the world of Willy Wonka doesn't mean that you can't lump him in with the rest of the crew.

But as far back as the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, people were speculating and writing about the inevitable arrival, one day, of a food pill that would replace conventional meals. At that time, one of the earliest explicit mentions of a food pill came from famed suffragist advocate and lawyer Mary Elizabeth Lease, who answered the American Press Association's call for predictions about the distant future that was 1993 with a vision of a world in which meal-replacement pills would finally unburden women from the shackles of the kitchen.

Lease predicted 1993 would bring "in condensed form 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 juice 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."

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One year after Lease's prediction, in an interview titled "Foods in the Year 2000," noted French chemist Marcellin Berthelot similarly predicted a future filled with food tablets; he surmised they would "satisfy epicurean senses of the future" and would chemically and nutritionally be equivalent to food. (He also had the foresight to extensively talk about the possibility of lab-grown meat, but that's a tale for another day.)

So now that it's 2016 and and the idea of a hoverboard has oh-so-unceremoniously been sullied by one too many glorified scooters, just where in the hell is the meal-replacement pills we were all promised?

The problem seems to be that it's just not scientifically possible at the moment to pack all the energy and nutrients a meal provides in a single pill. As Wired points out, a single pill with such a capability "would violate the laws of physics." Consider that the average person requires roughly 2,000 calories a day of food, and both carbs and proteins offer about four calories per gram, while fat provides around nine calories per gram. By that measure, 2,000 calories worth of pure fat, the most calorie-dense intake possible, would require a person to swallow around 450 standard-sized pills a day—the equivalent of half a pound of tablets. Oh, and that doesn't even account for all the other nutrients your body requires to survive.

Scientific feasibility aside, you also have to factor in food security to get a better understanding of why we don't have a bite-sized synthetic meal replacement in our lives today. While global food security is most certainly an increasingly critical issue as the world's population continues to balloon, historically speaking, we are currently living in an unprecedented age of stability the likes of which would be unthinkable a hundred years ago. For example, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization stated in a report earlier this year that per-capita fish consumption has hit an all-time global high. Who has time to lament the loss of a pill that could provide three days worth of sustenance when they have ready and near-unlimited access to food grown halfway around the world?

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Then there's the ever-increasing role that food plays in our everyday life and all facets of media and communication. Mary Elizabeth Lease's call for a "small phial" that could "furnish men with substance for days" and would lead to the mass liberation of womankind isn't congruent with the food-porn-laden era of celebrity chefs that we live in today. It becomes that much harder to push for the technological and scientific breakthroughs required to create a food pill if the vast majority of people aren't all that charmed anymore with the idea of leaving the kitchen in droves.

Alas, there seems to be one glimmer of hope on the horizon. Back in 2010, a group of researchers from the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, England were said to have developed technology to allow for multiple flavors to be put in microscopic capsules that would release, one by one, at different time intervals. There hasn't really been much word on the project since then, but it's comforting to know that someone out there is still livin' the dream.

All this is to say that while there may indeed come a time in which the realization of a food pill lines up with the values of society, leading to its creation and widespread adoption, the meal-hating futurists of today will have to suffice with Soylent and those cockroach protein blocks from Snowpiercer.

At least the crushing banality of the real world can't rob us of our hope for a future chock-full of pill-popping.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.