I just saw the new NileRed video on transforming cotton into cotton candy.

I remembered a story I read a long time ago that had a throw-away topic, not part of the main story but just something that happened in that world, where poor children were begging for paper. They were genetically enhanced to be able to digest wood pulp, as a means to increase their available food sources.

That's not a particularly crazy idea: the ability to digest lactose as an adult is a comparatively new mutation in humans, and not universally shared by all. Another YouTube mad scientist was extremely lactose intolerant and as a young teenager he decided to become a genetic engineer in order to cure himself — and he eventually performed gene therapy on himself from scratch, engineering a virus to introduce the DNA coding for the enzyme protein into the epithelial cells of his stomach. Now he's engineering yeast to produce spider silk.

Point is, if he wanted to he could do the same trick for cellulase as he did for lactase and be able to digest cotton, wood, etc. directly without the need for symbiotes or external processing.

So, imagine a future where people have such mods, to vastly increase the available food supply. This might be specific to off-world colonists in order to simply their necessary biosystem and agricultural infrastructure, but eventually becomes popular in the general population. Imagine that most things that are biological no longer have inedible parts, and furthermore toxins can be handled as well.

How will this affect cuisine?

If people can eat most any plant material including tough fiber, they won't starve if there's nothing but hay and trees. But I can't imagine chewing something like that would be practical. Cotton will taste slightly sweet (due to enzymes in the saliva liberating small amounts of glucose) but would not be something you would want to eat, due to the texture. How might they include it as an ingredient in cooking?

  • $\begingroup$ Wait a minute... "Human babies of any ancestry can tolerate lactose. In fact, human milk has a very high concentration of lactose compared to cows' milk and that of other mammals." (I suspect this entire article disagrees with your example about lactose.) However, that may be moot. This is one whomping broad question. Where do you want us to start? Pine cones? Red algae? Fugu sushi? I've got to VTC for needs details, but no matter how you fix it, it'll likely be too story-based. Cuisine is an aesthetic, not a world rule. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ Point is, if he wanted to he could do the same trick for cellulase as he did for lactase and be able to digest cotton, wood, etc. directly without the need for symbiotes or external processing. $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Seraph you quoted a sentence but didn't remark on it. Did you mean to say something but it got eaten by the formatting? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 0:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sorry I forgot to shift-enter instead of enter and then ran out of time to edit it. The process isn't as simple as you might think, considering that most organisms evolved to digest cellulose or other inedible substances efficiently have much more extreme physiological adaptations than this. You'd have to alter the microbiome and digestive organ systems, at the very least. Lactose is a pretty poor example imo because every human is already genetically capable of digesting it, it's only the expression of the gene that ceases in later life[...] $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 0:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ [...] You also have to justify why such bioengineering would actually be desired or necessary, considering that it's conceptually more viable to genetically modify existing crops in order to meet additional nutrition requirements or adapt to different environments, or even to engineer inedible material into something more palatable and productive. $\endgroup$
    – user71648
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 0:16

3 Answers 3


Not Much:

Humans throughout history have been more than willing to shove almost anything into their mouth. If it tastes gross, they spit it out (unless they are starving). Your enhanced ability to digest material will mostly help people at the very fringes of your culture, and any culture widely applying genetic engineering on sentients is unlikely to have a lot of such fringes. Plus, subsistence food is unlikely to be very many people's definition of cuisine (although it technically is).

Potentially, if a large amount of very coarse material enters the diet, people may need to pulverize, cut, acid-treat or grind it into something more palatable. They could modify teeth to allow chewing tough substances. Some semi-sweet but inedible grasses might enter the food system. On alien worlds, new amino acids in foods might mean people want to be able to eat native life, so they add the enzymes to convert them, then add receptors to make them taste good.

But other than expanding a few categories, like eating toxic mushrooms, it will not substantially shift human tastes or behaviors. People will be more likely to make their food into edible things, rather than modify themselves to enjoy more and different foods.

  • CAVEAT: With a more robust digestive system comes increased ability to tolerate food traditionally considered spoiled. While some of this will still taste and smell bad, food will be able to be left out longer, and being casual about temperature control, purity, and proper cooking. More things might be served raw (like fish known to contain parasites, things fermented with impure cultures, etc.). So less food is likely to go to waste for these reasons, and new fermentation and preservation techniques that might otherwise produce trace methanol, botulinum toxins, and the like will now be safe. Food safety will be a thing of the past.

You are going to stop your enhancement at cellulase?

These enhanced humans perceive their world differently. What we perceive as a mouthful of cardboard is delightfully textured to them. They can perceive and appreciate the components used - poplar and fir, with an intriguing hint of hemp. And the dessert of cotton trimmings from the Levi's factory in juniper-seasoned agar.

Your people are engineered to be able to eat cellulose calories, and also engineered to appreciate delicious cellulose calories.

Their cuisine would suit their palates and masticatory / digestive apparatus, which has all been rejiggered to thrive on celluose. Many aspects would be derived from typical humans cuisines because all of that is available and familiar. Creative chefs and foodsmiths possessed of engineered abilities will evolve and improve the repetoire for their people, according to availability, interest and profit. High end folks might get cinnamon and poppy creosote. Low end folks might get salt, ammonium chloride and a few drops of crude oil.


This is mostly a social issue, as the limits of genetic engineering and the other science is vast.

Socially, we've seen some new disruptions in what people consider acceptable cuisine just recently. In San Francisco (but also elsewhere) the millennials who work for startups have started consuming something branded "Soylent" (this name helping drive consumption rather than discourage it). It is a sort of protein powder with additional micronutrients that can be mixed up into a "shake" of sorts. Granted, I have not tried it myself, but personally I find the idea really unappealing.

This is notable for several reasons. It shows a willingness to experiment with cuisine on a level that the eater feels to be 100% pragmatic. This isn't them trying something exotic that is new to them but has been eaten for centuries elsewhere. Nor is it something they have been dared to do as a demonstration of how adventurous or taboo-breaking they feel themselves to be. In their minds, they are little meat robots that need to be periodically refueled as expeditiously as possible.

Thus, I suspect that the only limits are those of chemistry itself. They won't be able to eat helium or granite because those things provide no chemical energy, but everything else is up for grabs. And it will be as unappealing as an off-brown pasty not-shake the formula for which has been optimized for providing all the necessary micronutrients with no effort wasted on flavor. It's the Culinary ApocalypseTM and no one will escape it.


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