What is lab grown meat? A scientist explains the taste, production and safety of artificial foods

How is artificial meat made?

Also known as cultured or cell-based meat, artificial meat is grown from animal cells in a laboratory. Start-up companies have grown artificial beef, pork, chicken and even fish. However, none is commercially available yet.

There are different ways to grow artificial meat, but most use adult stem cells from a live animal. For beef, a tiny muscle sample is taken from a cow, under local anaesthesia. The muscle is chopped into smaller pieces, using enzymes to digest it and release the stem cells.

In a huge vat called a bioreactor, the stem cells are immersed 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 fibres that bunch together, aided by scaffolding material. The meat is ready for processing or cooking in a matter of weeks.

Producing a thick piece of steak is still some way off, with minced meat far easier to replicate. 3D printing is one possible option for creating a juicy steak layer by layer, but this technology is still in its infancy.

What is lab grown meat? A scientist explains the taste, production and safety of artificial foods © Getty Images 

Will artificial meat ever taste as good as the real thing?

The first artificial beef burger (unveiled to great fanfare in 2013 and developed at a cost of €250,000) was reported to be rather dry and dense, consisting solely of muscle fibres.

A good meat replacement needs to mimic smell, texture and taste, which is no mean feat. In an animal, muscle comprises organised fibres, blood vessels, nerves, connective tissues and fat cells. Thousands of flavour molecules contribute to real meat’s rich taste. It’s possible to add synthetic flavours 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 as they do in animals. In theory, cells from different species could be grown together to create completely new flavours.

Is artificial meat safe?

Artificial meat is touted as being as safe or safer than the real thing, produced in a highly controlled environment.

It is highly unlikely to become contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. coli because there are no digestive organs to worry about. With whole animals, there’s always a risk of meat becoming contaminated with bacteria after slaughter.

Having said that, artificial meat producers do need to take extra care to keep everything sterile because the nutrient-rich environment in the bioreactors is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

Some people have raised concerns over the 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 health effects in humans. This is why growth hormones have been banned in agriculture in the EU since 1981.

Does artificial meat contain enough nutrition?

Artificial meat is packed with protein and newer versions also contain fat. The nutritional content can be controlled to a certain extent by adjusting fat levels and playing with the levels of saturated fatty acids and healthier polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Saturated fats can be replaced with other types of fats, such as omega-3s, found naturally in fish or flaxseed oil. It’s also possible to add extra micronutrients such as vitamin B12 to artificial meats, as is routinely done to 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 some cancers. With its controlled fat levels, artificial meat may be slightly healthier, but it would still need to be eaten in moderation.

Plant-based meat alternatives may be the healthiest option, with similar protein levels and lower levels of saturated fat compared to conventional meat burgers.

What is lab grown meat? A scientist explains the taste, production and safety of artificial foods © Getty Images

Could artificial meat save the planet?

The global food system is under huge pressure from climate change, a growing population and increasing demand for animal products. As such, investors have poured vast sums into artificial meat start-ups in recent years. One estimate by US consultancy firm Kearney suggests that 35 per cent of all meat consumed globally will be cell-based by 2040.

Artificial meat can be produced faster and more efficiently than traditional meat, requiring a tiny fraction of the land. But it faces competition from insect-derived products and plant-based imitation meats, which consumers are already buying in increasing numbers.

Livestock produce a big proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Large numbers of people switching to artificial meat, could lead to big cuts in these gases, particularly methane. But a study at Oxford University has suggested that the CO2 emissions from powering artificial meat production facilities could be more damaging over the next 1,000 years.

About the author – Dr Emma Davies

Emma is a science writer specialising in environment, food and toxicology.

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