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Author Topic: Can we live off artificial food alone?  (Read 3104 times)

Offline David Cooper

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Can we live off artificial food alone?
« on: 29/11/2013 17:28:20 »
Can we live off artificial food alone? By artificial food, I mean food made out of chemicals without any of them being built by living things (plants/animals). Is there anything of this kind available now that could serve as the mainstay of our diet?


 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #1 on: 29/11/2013 19:15:39 »
It wouldn't be cheap.

I can't think of an essential nutrient that hasn't been synthesized in a lab. You can synthesize vitamin C and B12. You can get vitamin E from petrol chemicals and turpentine. You can synthesize cellulose for fibre. You can get glucose from glycerol, and of course the body itself can convert proteins and fats into sugar, but it produces a lot of acidic and toxic waste products (ketones.) Emil Fischer did a lot of the early work with the synthesis of basic organic compounds.

There's debate over nutrients and antioxidants found in plants, whose effects or roles aren't well established - are you aiming for optimum health or just survival?

If you include bacteria or fungi in your sources, you can make a lot of things.

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1902/fischer-bio.html
« Last Edit: 29/11/2013 23:50:40 by cheryl j »
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #2 on: 29/11/2013 19:38:10 »
Low doses of Ketones can be a nutrient, not "toxic".  However, I don't believe a person can safely consume acetone, or other simple ketones in large quantities. 

The brain, however, also generally needs glucose, or related sugars.

I have no doubt that a person could survive for quite some time with a mix of vitamins & minerals, simple sugars such as glucose, and a selection of amino acids.

However, as Cheryl mentioned, the synthesis may be complex and costly.  White sugar, for example, is not synthesized, but rather is a highly refined plant product.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #3 on: 29/11/2013 21:58:39 »
Low doses of Ketones can be a nutrient, not "toxic".  However, I don't believe a person can safely consume acetone, or other simple ketones in large quantities. 



Yes that's true, but when diabetics who lack insulin burn fat exclusively they go into ketoacidosis which lowers the blood pH and can be fatal. So you'd have to have some carbohydrate or sugar from somewhere.
 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #4 on: 29/11/2013 22:36:50 »
The answer must be "in principle, yes" because nothing is synthesised in nature that could not in principle be synthesised by other means. Whether there is any point in trying, however, is an entirely different question. Natural synthesis begins with the sun and although it may overall be energy-inefficient, it is cheap and sustainable well beyond any artificial process. And after zillions of years, we seem to have evolved to use exactly what has become available by the accident of other species growing. Being accidental, these processes, and their resultant chemicals, are extremely complicated and rather delicately balanced.   
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #5 on: 29/11/2013 23:38:42 »
Here is a formulation for Total parenteral nutrition (TPN).

There is no reason most, or all of the components couldn't be synthesized.

TPN, of course, is a high risk method of delivering nutrition, but there is no reason a similar formulation couldn't be taken orally.
 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #6 on: 30/11/2013 19:27:01 »
Thanks for all those answers. I just wondered if it would be possible for someone to survive if they went beyond vegetarianism and veganism into rejecting the killing of plants for food too. That total parenteral nutrition list makes it sound as if it could be made practical some day.
 

Offline evan_au

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #7 on: 02/12/2013 10:32:51 »
One of the most difficult aspects of nutrition to synthesise is its "chirality".

This is the fact that many simple organic compounds like sugars and amino acids come in two "mirror image" forms. Traditional chemical synthesis produces roughly equal quantities of the "left-handed" and "right-handed" varieties, forming a "racemic" mixture.

However, food consists almost entirely of chiral molecules. Mirror-image molecules would not meet human nutritional needs, nor would they form the traditional textures of familiar foods, as right and left-handed mixtures do not form the familiar protein structures of chains, sheets and helices.

I have not heard whether the mammal digestive system is able to absorb the "right" molecules, and safely discard the "wrong" molecules.

We are sometimes exposed to the other type of chirality, in the scent of some herbs;  some types of antibiotics have a chiral center which proves lethal to micro-organisms which try to incorporate them into their cells.

For now, producing a meal of the right chirality relies on biological processes, rather than on traditional racemic chemistry.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #8 on: 02/12/2013 16:16:59 »



I have not heard whether the mammal digestive system is able to absorb the "right" molecules, and safely discard the "wrong" molecules.


Isn't one of the new artificial sweeteners a left handed version of a sugar that we normally digest? I forget which one.  I think its shape is similar enough to trigger the taste receptor for sweetness,  but cannot be broken down properly by digestive enzymes, and therefore provides no calories.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #9 on: 02/12/2013 20:14:13 »
There are methods for Chiral Resolution, although it may mean either wasting, or having to reprocess half of the "food" that is produced.

One can, of course, use proteins to catalyze reactions to produce enantiopure compounds.  However, at some point, these proteins would come from life, such as bacteria or yeast. 

Perhaps one could devise other non-protein based catalysts for the processing.
 

Online Bored chemist

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Re: Can we live off artificial food alone?
« Reply #10 on: 02/12/2013 21:40:41 »
 

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