Tag Archives: cultured meat

Cultured meat is coming. But will people eat it?

Cultured chicken salad. Image credits: UPSIDE.

The prospect of cultured meat is enticing for several reasons. For starters, it’s more ethical — you don’t need to kill billions of animals every year. It could also be better for the environment, producing lower emissions and requiring less land and water than “traditional” meat production, and would also reduce the risk of new outbreaks (potentially pandemics) emerging. To top it all off, you can also customize cultured meat with relative ease, creating products that perfectly fit consumers’ tastes.

But there are also big challenges. In addition to the technological challenges, there is the need to ensure meat culturing is not only feasible and scalable but also cheap. There’s also a more pragmatic problem: taste. There’s a lot to be said about why people enjoy eating meat, but much of it boils down to how good it tastes. Meanwhile, cultured meat has an undeniable “artificial” feel to it (at least for now). Despite being made from the exact same cells as “regular” meat, it seems unnatural and unfamiliar, so there are fears that consumers may reject it as unappealing.

Before you even try it

A recent study underlines just how big this taste challenge is — and how perception (in addition to the taste per se) could dissuade people from consuming cultured meat. According to the research, which gathered data from 1,587 volunteers, 35% of non-vegetarians and 55% of vegetarians find cultured meat too disgusting to eat.

“As a novel food that humans have never encountered before, cultured meat may evoke hesitation for seeming so unnatural and unfamiliar—and potentially so disgusting,” the researchers write in the study.

For vegetarians, the aversion towards cultured meat makes a lot of sense. For starters, even though it’s not meat from a slaughtered animal, it’s still meat, and therefore has a potential to elicit disgust.

“Animal-derived products may be common triggers of disgust because they traditionally carry higher risks of disease-causing microorganisms. Reminders of a food’s animal origin may evoke disgust particularly strongly among vegetarians,” the study continues.

For non-vegetarians, it’s quite the opposite: it can elicit disgust because it’s not natural enough. Many studies highlight that meat-eaters express resistance to trying cultured meat because of its perceived unnaturalness. So if you’d want to make cultured meat more appealing for consumers, you’d have to approach things differently for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. For instance, perceiving cultured meat as resembling animal flesh predicted less disgust among meat-eaters but more disgust among vegetarians. But there were also similarities between the two groups. Perceiving cultured meat as unnatural was strongly associated with disgust toward it among both vegetarians and meat-eaters. Combating beliefs about unnaturalness could go a long way towards convincing people to at least give cultured meat a shot.

A cultured rib-eye steak. Image credits: Aleph Farms / Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

Even before people eat a single bite of cultured meat, their opinion may already be shaped. If we want to get people to consume this type of product, tackling predetermined disgust is a big first step. Different cultures could also have widely different preferences in this regard.

“Cultured meat offers promising environmental benefits over conventional meat, yet these potential benefits will go unrealized if consumers are too disgusted by cultured meat to eat it.”

Okay, but is cultured meat actually good?

Full disclosure: no one at ZME Science has tried cultured meat yet (but we’re working on it). Even if we had, our experience wouldn’t be necessarily representative of the greater public. Herein lies one problem: compared to how big the potential market is, only a handful of people have actually tasted this type of meat. We don’t yet have large-scale surveys or focus groups (or if companies have this type of data, they haven’t publicly released it from what we could find).

The expert reviews seem to be somewhat favorable. In a recent blind test, Israel Master Chef judge Michal Ansky was unable to differentiate between “real” chicken and its cultured alternative. Ansky tasted the cultured chicken that was already approved for consumption in Singapore (the first place where cultured meat has been approved).

The remarkable progress that cultured meat has made in regards to its taste was also highlighted by a recent study from The Netherlands, in which blind-tested participants preferred the taste of cultured meat.

“All participants tasted the ‘cultured’ hamburger and evaluated its taste to be better than the conventional one in spite of the absence of an objective difference,” the researchers write.

The study authors also seemed confident that cultured meat could become mainstream given its appealing taste and environmental advantages.

“This study confirms that cultured meat is acceptable to consumers if sufficient information is provided and the benefits are clear. This has also led to increased acceptance in recent years. The study also shows that consumers will eat cultured meat if they are served it,” said Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, one of the study authors.

Researchers are also close to culturing expensive, gourmet types of meat, including the famous Wagyu beef, which normally sells for around $400 for a kilogram. Researchers are already capable of culturing bits of this meat four times cheaper, and the price is expected to continue going down. This would be a good place for cultured meat to start, making expensive types of meat more available to the masses.

Still, there are some differences between most types of cultured meat and meat coming from animals. For instance, one study that used an “electronic tongue” to analyze the chemical make-up of the meat found “significant” differences.

“There were significant differences in the taste characteristics assessed by an electronic tongue system, and the umami, bitterness, and sourness values of cultured muscle tissue were significantly lower than those of both chicken and cattle traditional meat,” the study reads. But the same study also suggests that understanding these differences could make cultured meat even more realistic and palatable.

This technology is also progressing very quickly in this regard, and every year, cultured meat seems to be taking strides towards becoming more affordable and tasty. There are multiple companies pending approval to embark on mass production, using somewhat different technologies and products. There are multiple types of meat on the horizon, from chicken and beef to pork and even seafood, and for many of them, the taste data is only just coming in.

All in all, cultured meat promises to be one of the biggest food revolutions in the past decades. Whether it will actually deliver on this promise is a different problem that will hinge on several variables, including price, taste, and of course, environmental impact. If companies can deliver a product that truly tastes like traditional meat, they have a good chance. There’s still a long road before the technology becomes mainstream, but given how quickly things have progressed thus far, we may see cultured meat on the shelves sooner than we expect.

Scientists figure out a way to add fat to lab-grown meat

A research team has simultaneously engineered both muscle tissue and fat from sampled cattle cells, an achievement that could eventually bring higher quality cultured meat to dinner tables.

Image credits: Naraoka et al.

As people are becoming more and more aware of the negative environmental and ethical problems associated with meat consumption, the alternative meat industry is booming. Veggie burgers have become commonplace in many places, and meat alternatives are only becoming more and more diversified. Until now, these alternatives only mimicked the properties of meat. But soon, meat alternatives could be actually meat.

Lab-grown meat, meat grown from animal cells without actually killing animals, is not only more ethical, but perhaps also more environmentally friendly, producing less CO2 emissions and using less water and soil than traditional meat productin. Since the industry is just starting out, we don’t know exactly how eco-friendly it would be, but there are already reasons for optimism.

“The current process of meat production using livestock has significant effects on the global environment, including high emissions of greenhouse gases. In recent years, cultured meat has attracted attention as a way to acquire animal proteins,” write the authors of a new study.

Whether or not the lab-grown meat industry will succeed, though, will likely depend on two things: price and taste/texture.

The price is already looking pretty decent. Although it’s not quite at the same price as regular meat, lab-grown meat has gone from $325,000 a burger in 2013 to around $10 in 2020. In Singapore, the only place that has currently regulated lab-grown meat and is selling it so far, a serving of chicken nuggets goes for $23 — it’s still expensive, but not extremely far away from parity, and as production scales and matures, cost will undoubtedly continue to go down.

Which leaves us with how the meat actually tastes. Part of what makes lab-grown meat so attractive (other than the fact that it’s better for animals and the environment) is that you can grow any type of meat. Sure, $10 for a burger or a steak sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to grow regular steaks, you can grow luxury, expensive steaks. For instance, wagyu steaks can cost up to $200 per pound and by comparison, $10 doesn’t sound as bad. But to engineer different types of meat, researchers need to be able to not just produce meat, but also produce the fat around it. Now, researchers working in Japan have found a way to produce both muscle tissue and fat from sampled cattle cells, which could enable scientists to engineer higher-quality meat.

For most of the lab-grown meat, muscle cells are cultivated to produce fibers, while the fat is injected afterward to resemble the “real” thing. However, with the new approach, muscle and fat can be grown at the same time, using cells from an animal’s skeletal muscle. This type of cell is easy to grow, the researchers explain.

Currently, researchers can use small chunks of meat, 0.5 millimeters in diameter, to grow pieces of up to 1.5 centimeters in diameter — not enough for a full-grown steak, but this is still just the first study describing the method. It takes around 21 days for beef to be grown using this method.

What makes this even more exciting is that different types of oil and fat can be added into the product this way, making the resulting lab-grown meat healthier and richer in nutritional supplements.

It’s still early days, but this type of study shows just how quickly the field of lab-grown meat can progress. It went from little more than a pipe dream ten years ago to already becoming a reality in 2021 — in several countries, including the US and Israel, the factories are already ready, it’s just the regulatory approval that’s lacking. So, would you go for a lab-grown steak?

The study “Isolation and Characterization of Tissue Resident CD29-Positive Progenitor Cells in Livestock to Generate a Three-Dimensional Meat Bud” has been published in the journal Cells.

California cultured meat plant is ready to produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year

In a residential neighborhood in Emeryville, California, a rather unusual facility has taken shape. The factory, which almost looks like a brewery, is actually a meat factory — but rather than slaughtering animals, it uses bioreactors to “grow” meat. According to the company that built it, it can already produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year, and has room to expand production to 400,000 pounds.

UPSIDE Chicken Salad

Upside Foods (previously called Memphis Meats) started out in 2015 as one of the pioneers of the nascent food-growing industry. Now, just 6 years later, there are over 80 companies working to bring lab-grown meat to the public — including one in Singapore which is already selling cultured chicken.

The fact that such a factory can be built (while regulatory approval is still pending and Upside can’t technically sell its products) already is striking. Upside’s new facility is located in an area known more for its restaurants than its factories, but with $200 million in funding and ever-growing consumer interest, the company seems to be sending a strong message.

Cultivating meat

The new facility is a testament to how much technology in this field has grown. The company can not only produce ground meat, but cuts of meat as well. Chicken breast is the first planned product, and the company says they can produce many types of meat, from duck to lobster.

“When we founded UPSIDE in 2015, it was the only cultivated meat company in a world full of skeptics,” says Uma Valeti, CEO and Founder of UPSIDE Foods. “When we talked about our dream of scaling up production, it was just that — a dream. Today, that dream becomes a reality. The journey from tiny cells to EPIC has been an incredible one, and we are just getting started.”

There’s still no word yet on how much these products will cost, but it’s probably not gonna be the cheapest meat on the market. Although lab-grown meat is nearing cost-competitiveness with slaughter meat, it’s not quite there yet. Besides, Upside already announced that their chicken products will be served by three-Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn. Crenn is the only chef in the US to be awarded three Michelin stars, and she famously removed meat from her menus in 2018 to make a statement against the negative impact of animal agriculture on the global environment and the climate crisis

Not for sale yet

Upside isn’t the only company to recently receive a lot of money in funding. Their San Francisco rival Eat Just, which became the first company in the world to sell lab-grown meat, received more than $450 million in funding. A 2021 McKinsey & Company report estimates that the cultivated meat industry will surge to $25 billion by 2030. However, in the US (and almost every country on the globe) cultured meat isn’t approved for sale yet.

The FDA has largely been silent on lab-grown meat since 2019, and while many expect a verdict soon, there’s no guarantee of a timeline. Even if the FDA allows the sale and consumption of lab-grown meat in the US, it will likely do so on a product-by-product basis rather than opening the floodgates to lab-grown meat as a whole. In the EU, things will likely move even slower.

However, pressure is mounting. In addition to the obvious ethical advantages of lab-grown meat, its environmental impact may also be less severe than that of slaughter meat. However, this has not been confirmed since we don’t yet have a large-scale production facility, and the few available studies don’t have definitive conclusions.

This is why having a working factory is so exciting, because it could offer the first glimpses of how sustainable the practice actually is. Upside says the facility uses 100% renewable energy and has expressed its desire to have a third party verify the facility’s sustainability by mid-2022.

Of course, all of this depends on the regulatory approval that may or may not come anytime soon. In the meantime, the factory is ready and good to go.