Guide to laboratory-grown meats | Environmental impact, safety, production
How is artificial meat made?
Also known as cultured or cell-based meat, artificial meat is grown from animal cells in a laboratory. Start-ups have grown artificial beef, pork, chicken, and even fish. However, none are yet commercially available.
There are different ways to grow artificial meat, but most use adult stem cells from a living animal. For beef, a tiny sample of muscle is taken from a cow, under local anesthesia. The muscle is cut into small pieces, using enzymes to digest it and release the stem cells.
In a huge tank called a bioreactor, the stem cells are submerged in a broth containing salts, vitamins, sugars and proteins, as well as growth factors. The oxygen-rich, temperature-controlled environment allows cells to multiply dramatically. The stem cells then differentiate into muscle fibers that cluster together, aided by scaffolding material. The meat is ready to be processed or cooked in a few weeks.
It is still a long way from producing a thick piece of steak, as ground meat is much easier to reproduce. 3D printing is a possible option for creating a juicy steak layer by layer, but this technology is still in its infancy.
Will artificial meat taste as good as the real thing?
The first artificial beef burger (unveiled with great fanfare in 2013 and developed at a cost of € 250,000) would have been rather dry and dense, composed only of muscle fibers.
A good meat substitute should mimic the smell, texture and taste, which is no small feat. In an animal, muscle consists of organized fibers, blood vessels, nerves, connective tissue, and fat cells. Thousands of flavor molecules contribute to the rich taste of real meat. It is possible to add synthetic flavors to artificial meat, but balancing and distributing them is tricky.
Progress has been made since 2013 and a Dutch company called Meatable now claims to be able to reprogram stem cells collected from bovine umbilical cord blood, turning them into master cells that can differentiate into fat or muscle. This allows muscle and fat cells to grow together like they do in animals. In theory, cells from different species could be grown together to create completely new flavors.
Is artificial meat safe?
Artificial meat is touted as being as safe or more secure than the real thing, produced in a highly controlled environment.
It is very unlikely that it will be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. coli because there are no digestive organs to worry about. With whole animals, there is always a risk that the meat will be contaminated with bacteria after slaughter.
That said, artificial meat producers need to be very careful to keep everything sterile, as the nutrient-rich environment in bioreactors is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
Some people have worried about growth factors added to stem cells, which include hormones. These hormones are naturally present in animals as well as in real meat. However, overexposure can have adverse effects on human health. This is why growth hormones have been banned in agriculture in the EU since 1981.
Does artificial meat contain enough nutrients?
Artificial meat is high in protein, and newer versions also contain fat. Nutritional content can be controlled to some extent by adjusting fat levels and playing with the levels of healthier saturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fat can be replaced with other types of fat, such as omega-3s, which are found naturally in fish or flaxseed oil. It is also possible to add additional micronutrients such as vitamin B12 to artificial meats, as is commonly done with breads and breakfast cereals.
The fact remains that eating too much red meat is bad for our health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. With its fat levels controlled, artificial meat may be slightly healthier, but it should still be eaten in moderation.
Plant-based meat substitutes may be the healthier option, with similar protein levels and lower levels of saturated fat compared to traditional meat burgers.
Could artificial meat save the planet?
The global food system is under enormous pressure from climate change, a growing population and an increasing demand for animal products. As such, investors have invested huge sums in artificial meat start-ups in recent years. An estimate from the American consulting firm Kearney suggests that 35% of all meat consumed in the world will be cell-based by 2040.
Artificial meat can be produced faster and more efficiently than traditional meat, requiring only a tiny fraction of the land. But it faces competition from products derived from insects and imitations of plant-based meats, which consumers are already buying more and more.
Livestock produce a large portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Large numbers of people switching to artificial meat, could lead to big reductions in these gases, especially methane. But a study from the University of Oxford suggested that CO2 emissions from feeding artificial meat production facilities could be more damaging over the next 1000 years.
About the Author – Dr Emma Davies
Emma is a science writer specializing in environment, food and toxicology.
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