Cultured Meat: Frankenfood or Factory Farm Fix?

Cultured meat is being touted as a humane, healthy and climate-friendly alternative to animal agriculture. Find out why this idea is far from fruition.

As we’ve mentioned in earlier stories, the pandemic has triggered a lot of discussion from people with various preoccupations – both valid and invalid. These have included religious fanatics hoping that the end times have arrived, conspiracy theorists of many stripes, anti-vaxxers and vegan extremists.

Vegans are interesting because they pose an ethical challenge to the rest of us. They contend that killing livestock is immoral, unhealthy and bad for the environment.

The morality question is a thorny one. It challenges us to consider whether non-human animals warrant some moral consideration or, as vegans maintain, the same ethical respect as human beings.

People in the Developed World Eat Far Too Much Meat

On the question of health, it’s clear that people in the developed world, especially the United States, eat far too much meat. Excessive meat consumption leads to heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes. 

On the other hand, dieticians tell us that plant=based food lacks essential micronutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc. Vegans can address this by taking supplements or buying fortified foods, but that hardly seems naturally healthy.

Of course, diet isn’t everything when it comes to long term health—we all know both vegetarians and heavy meat-eaters who’ve lived to a ripe old age.

Crops to Feed Animals Instead of Humans is Wasteful

When it comes to the environment, vegans point out that the meat industry is carbon-intensive . They also argue that growing huge crops to feed animals instead of humans is wasteful. 

Omnivores reply that transporting produce overseas also has environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, without livestock, farmers have to rely on chemical fertilizers instead of manure. Chemical fertilizers require enormous quantities of fossil fuels to produce and, once again, aren’t natural.

Earlier this month, an interesting new option came back into focus that might someday be a game-changer in the food ethics debate. Readers may remember the introduction of the first “clean meat” hamburger produced entirely in a laboratory back in 2013.

First Hamburger Produced in a Lab Cost 250,000 Euros

That hamburger cost 250,000 euros to produce. A research team from Maastricht University led by Dr. Mark Post made the meat for the burger from cow stem cells, artificially generating 20,000 beef muscle fibres.

Now, the journal Nature Food has published a study by a team led by Professor Shulamit Levenberg from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. It describes an improved technique for cultured (or cell-based) meat production.

Her team added a three-dimensional scaffold consisting of textured soy protein (TSP) to the conventional cultured meat cells and ingredients. The scaffold allowed the team to produce more generous and more textured versions of cell-based meat.

Larger and More Textured Versions of Cell-Based Meat

Textured soy protein is a porous, dry and protein-based material. It gets softer when it absorbs water. 

It’s an existing, mass-produced by-product of the soy industry, so it’s an inexpensive ingredient. It’s also a very familiar, approved food-grade substance that’s been on the market since 1960.

It was an ideal choice for the scaffold material because of its texture and high protein content. It also provides anchor points to which seeded animal cells can attach themselves.

Familiar, Approved Food Grade Substance

The new scaffold allowed the team to go beyond the meatballs and burger patties on which other innovators have concentrated so far. Textured soy protein is what fast food outlets use to produce those “beyond meat” or “plant-based meat” burgers we’ve seen advertised lately.

The study included a taste test. Volunteers described the cultured meat as typical of red meat in terms of flavour, smell and consistency. 

As noted in the research paper, “TSP scaffolds with cells had a meaty flavour and a typical meat bite and texture. Taste studies examine the sensory attractiveness of a product and allow us to understand the sensory profile of the food.”

“Meaty Flavour and a Typical Meat Bite and Texture”

Readers with sophisticated palettes may have noticed that soy can add some unusual flavours as a meat substitute. The volunteers didn’t experience anything like that in the cultured meat they sampled.

Traditional beef cells grow inside a structure called the extracellular matrix, which has an arrangement like a honeycomb. Professor Levenberg’s soy-based scaffold structure substitutes for the biological matrix in livestock.

After setting up the matrix, the next step was to implant the cattle cells into it. The team used three kinds of beef cells, satellite, endothelial and muscle.

The Team Used Three Kinds of Beef Cells

Muscle cells in cattle enable the extracellular matrix to hold other kinds of cells in place. Satellite cells are like stem cells for the muscle cells. Endothelial cells form the blood vessels that supply the body with oxygen and nutrients through blood circulation.

This combination of cells improved muscle growth in the cultured beef. It also caused the cells to deposit compounds related to the extracellular matrix into the cell-based production process.

As the study explains, “Cells seeded on thick TSP samples attached and proliferated on the TSP surface. After optimizing the media composition for 3D scaffolds, BSCs covered a large proportion of the TSP scaffold, exhibited improved morphology and differentiated into elongated myotubes.”

Competition to Bring Cultured Meat to Market is Intense

Professor Levenberg is the founder of a new business called Aleph Farms. At the same time, Dr. Post owns a Dutch start-up company called Mosa Meats. The competition to bring a cultured meat product to the market is intense.

Dr. Levenberg’s team put it this way, “The results presented here represent the potential for CBM to be scaled up, forming new protein sources for human consumption. This would reduce our reliance on animal agriculture and contribute to more sustainable food security.”

Despite the researchers’ enthusiasm, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about this new food product. Can it be brought to market at a price point that attracts consumers away from traditional meat?

Who Will Be Attracted to Cell-Based Meat?

What type of customer will be attracted to cell-based meat? Will typical vegans, vegetarians or locavores be drawn to it or repulsed by it?

Will beef connoisseurs and barbecue enthusiasts be willing to give up their fondness for conventional meat? Can they be persuaded to pay a premium price for it?

All of that remains to be seen. Dr. Post told Inside Science that the next step should be to find ways to incorporate fat cells into the cultured meat tissue. Fat cells would further improve the taste and texture and simulate the marbling we see in traditional beef.

Earth’s Population Will Reach Ten Billion People by 2050

The United Nations predicts that the Earth’s population will reach ten billion people by 2050. Finding ways to feed those people will be an overwhelming challenge.

As standards of living rise, so does the demand for meat products. Can passive meat provide part of the solution to feeding our growing population?  Or is it another example of high-tech promoters churning out a solution looking for a problem?  We need a lot more answers before we can figure that out.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Lab-Grown Meat Climbs to New Heights on Scaffolds of Soy
Textured Soy Protein Scaffolds Enable the Generation of Three Dimensional Bovine Skeletal Muscle Tissue for Cell-Based Meat
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Finding New Ways to Share the Land
Predators Decline First from Human Land Use

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