Tag Archives: meat

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.

Berlin universities cut meat from menus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

It’s time to say goodbye to the currywurst and the schnitzel at universities in Berlin — and say hello to vegetables and meat replacements.

Students eating at campus canteens will have make to big cuts to their meat and fish options, as universities turn to more climate-friendly menus. The move marks a big shift for Germany, with companies such as Volkswagen also changing menus at the office.

Image credit: Flickr / Word Ridden

There are almost 200,000 university students in Berlin, who regularly visit 34 canteens and cafes throughout the day. From October, each of these sites will have to offer a menu 68% vegan, 28% vegetarian and 2% fish-based – with only one meat option four days a week. It’s a big change, as cafeterias now offer 30-50% vegetarian options (which is still far more than in places like the US). 

“We developed a new nutritional concept mainly because students have repeatedly approached us with the request for a more climate-friendly offer at their canteens,” Daniela Kummle of Studierendenwerk, the organization providing economic, social, health and cultural support to students at Berlin’s universities, told The Guardian.

In fact, there’s already a critical mass of students in Berlin following a meat-free diet. A 2019 survey showed that 33% of the university students in the city were vegetarian, while 13.5% said to be vegan. From October, they will have even more food options to choose from, such as pasta bakes, buckwheat and spelt bowls and marinated beetroot. 

Berlin’s Free University opened in 2010 a canteen selling vegetarian food called Veggie 1.0. Then, in 2019, it opened a vegan-only canteen, called Veggie No 2. Both are run by the Studierendenwerk, which described the canteens as an experiment and said they didn’t want to change people’s diets. It was the first of its kind at a German university.

“The great success of the vegetarian and vegan canteens has made it clear that students’ consumer behavior is changing. There’s a clear trend towards fewer animal-based products,” Kummle from the Studierendenwerk organization told The Guardian.

Such a move doesn’t only apply to universities. Employees at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg in the north of Germany used to be so keen on sausages that the car maker started making its own, with a team of 30 people making them every day. Now, the company has decided to cut out its production because of carbon emissions.

Germany recently introduced a rule that forces companies with office and factory canteens to start introducing one meat-free day per week to cut down emissions. Volkswagen decided to take it a step further, not making any more sausages. Still, not everybody is on board, with a former German chancellor recently complaining about it.

What’s the deal with beef?

Meat is one of the main global contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Red meat, in particular, takes up more land, uses more water, and produces more carbon dioxide than non-meat alternatives.

In addition, cows and other ruminant animals like sheep emit methane in a process known as enteric fermentation, which is the origin of cows’ burps. Methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2 and its concentration in the atmosphere is now higher than at any moment in at past 800,000 years, as climate experts have recently warned. 

A study by the UN found that annual emissions from animal agriculture, including production and land-use change, account for 14.5% of all human emissions – with beef contributing to 41%. And they could grow even more in the future, as the growing middle classes in developing countries shift their diets towards higher meat consumption.

Demand of beef would grow by 88% between 2010 and 2050, according to the World Resources Institute, with pastureland expanding by about 400 million hectares. The resulting deforestation would make it very difficult limiting temperature rise to 1.5ºC or 2ºC, the overall objectives in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 

This is where diets shifting away from beef come in handy. As in Germany, several countries are making progress. Per capita beef consumption has dropped a third in the US since 1970, with growing alternatives of plant-based burgers that are competing with conventional meat products thanks to their similar taste and price.

It’s unsurprising that university campuses would bring a change in sustainable eating, but whether or not this catches to other social groups (and other countries) remains to be seen. If we are to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change, this is the type of action we need to take.

Meat and plant-based meat don’t have the same nutritional properties, but neither is better than the other

While they may look, taste, and feel pretty much the same, meat and plant-based meat are not the same from a nutritional standpoint. That’s not to say one is better than the other, but they are different beasts and should not be seen as interchangeable, a new paper explains.

Image credits Andreas Lischka.

New research at Duke University is taking a deeper look into the nutritional content of plant-based meats. These products, at least when judging from nutritional labels, seem pretty much identical to regular meat. They have similar vitamin, fat, and protein contents, all characteristics that are listed on the labels of food products. But they have significant differences among many of the nutritional elements that don’t make it onto the labels.

Similar but not the same

“To consumers reading nutritional labels, they may appear nutritionally interchangeable,” said Stephan van Vliet, a postdoctoral researcher at the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute who led the research. “But if you peek behind the curtain using metabolomics and look at expanded nutritional profiles, we found that there are large differences between meat and a plant-based meat alternative.”

“It is important for consumers to understand that these products should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable, but that’s not to say that one is better than the other. Plant and animal foods can be complementary, because they provide different nutrients.”

Great effort has been put into making plant-based meat more meat-like, quite understandably so. This makes it more appealing to people looking for a realistic plant-based substitute for meat, while also, potentially, making it more enticing to those who are used to regular meat. Towards this end, plant-based meat products often include leghemoglobin, a molecule derived from soy, red beet, berries, and carrot extracts that simulates meat’s ‘juiciness’. Its texture is simulated through the addition of digestible fibers, and proteins from plant sources such as soy or peas are mixed in to fortify the meat substitute. Other ingredients such as vitamins and minerals (for example, B12 and zinc) are often mixed in as well in order to mimic meat’s nutritional values.

However, the team reports that there are still significant differences in nutritional content between meat and plant-based meat substitutes. These differences are most pronounced in items that aren’t listed on nutritional labels, they add. The team measured the levels of different metabolites involved in various processes that keep our bodies going. According to the authors, we estimate that there are over 100,000 such metabolites that play a role in our biochemistry and that we get around half of them from our diets.

For the study, they compared metabolite levels in 18 samples of plant-based meat to those in 18 samples of grass-fed, ground beef samples taken from a ranch in Idaho. They report finding differences in 171 out of the 190 metabolites they analyzed between the two groups. Regular meat contained 22 metabolites that the plant-based patties did not. On the other hand, the latter contained 31 metabolites that beef didn’t. These differences were most significant in regards to amino acids, dipeptides, vitamins, and phenol levels, as well as in the types of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids in these products.

Several metabolites that are known to play an important part in maintaining our health were found in greater quantities in beef, and a few were found there exclusively. These include creatine, spermine, anserine, cysteamine, glucosamine, squalene, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.

“These nutrients have potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and or immunomodulatory roles,” the authors note in the paper.

“These nutrients are important for our brain and other organs including our muscles” van Vliet adds. “But some people on vegan diets (no animal products), can live healthy lives — that’s very clear.”

While the results are definitely valuable, they don’t point to either variety of meat being better than the other. Both varieties contain some compounds that aren’t seen in the other, so they’d both, ideally, be included in our diets.

The paper “A metabolomics comparison of plant-based meat and grass-fed meat indicates large nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Stone-age humans mostly ate meat, then ran out of big animals

Stone age humans used to dine mainly on meat, a new study reports. It was only as megafauna (the huge animals of yore, like mammoths) died off that vegetables were increasingly making their way on the menu.

Image credits Uwe Ruhrmann.

A new paper offers a fresh and interesting interpretation of how humanity made the trek from hunting to agriculture. According to the findings, ancient humans were primarily carnivores, with game meat making up an important part of their diet. But as the species they hunted died out, vegetables and plant matter made up a growing part of their diets. These extinctions likely also led to the domestication of plants and animals, as our ancestors needed to secure sources of food.

Traditional cuisine

“So far, attempts to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans were mostly based on comparisons to 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies,” explains Dr. Miki Ben-Dor of the Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, first author of the paper.

“This comparison is futile, however, because two million years ago hunter-gatherer societies could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals — while today’s hunter-gatherers do not have access to such bounty. The entire ecosystem has changed, and conditions cannot be compared. We decided to use other methods to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans: to examine the memory preserved in our own bodies, our metabolism, genetics, and physical build. Human behavior changes rapidly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.”

The team trawled through almost 400 scientific papers from various disciplines, trying to determine whether stone-age humans were carnivores or omnivores. They collected around 25 lines of evidence, mostly from papers dealing with genetics, metabolism, physiology, and morphology, that can help us determine this.

One of the tidbits cited by the team includes the acidity of the human stomach. This is “high when compared to omnivores and even to other predators”, they explain, which means our bodies have to spend extra energy to keep them so. But it also provides some protection from bacteria often found in meat, suggesting that this was an adaptation meant to help our ancestors eat meat. Ancient peoples hunted large animals whose meat would feed the group for days or weeks, meaning they often ate old meat laden with bacteria.

Another clue they list is the way our bodies store fat. Omnivores, they explain, tend to store fat in a relatively small number of large cells. Predators do it the other way around — humans also share this latter approach of using a large number of relatively small cells. A comparison with chimpanzees also shows that areas of our genetic code are inactivated to specialize us for a fat-rich diet (in chimps, these changes support a sugar-rich diet).

Archeological evidence also supports the meat-eating hypothesis. Isotope ratio studies on the bones of ancient humans, alongside evidence of how they hunted, suggests our ancestors specialized in hunting large or medium-sized animals that had a lot of fat. Large social predators today also hunt large animals and get over 70% of their energy from animal sources, the team writes, and this parallel suggests that early human groups acted a lot like hypercarnivores.

“Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “It requires a great deal of knowledge, and lions and hyenas attain these abilities after long years of learning. Clearly, the remains of large animals found in countless archaeological sites are the result of humans’ high expertise as hunters of large animals.”

“Many researchers who study the extinction of the large animals agree that hunting by humans played a major role in this extinction — and there is no better proof of humans’ specialization in hunting large animals. Most probably, like in current-day predators, hunting itself was a focal human activity throughout most of human evolution. Other archaeological evidence — like the fact that specialized tools for obtaining and processing vegetable foods only appeared in the later stages of human evolution — also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet, throughout most of human history.”

The findings go against the grain of our previous hypotheses on how humans evolved. Previously, it was assumed that humans’ dietary flexibility allowed them to adapt to a wide range of situations and environments, giving them an evolutionary edge; but the current findings suggest that we evolved largely as predators instead. That’s not to mean that they ate only meat — there is well-documented evidence of plant-eating during this time — but plants only gained a central part in their diets in the latter days of the stone age.

Stone tools specialized for processing plants started appearing around 85,000 years ago in Africa and about 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, the team adds, suggesting plants were increasingly being eaten. The researchers also explain that such tools show an increase in local uniqueness over time, a process similar to that seen in 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies. In contrast, during the time when the team believes humans acted more like apex predators, stone tools maintained very high degrees of similarity and continuity regardless of local ecological conditions.

“Our study addresses a very great current controversy — both scientific and non-scientific. It is hard to convince a devout vegetarian that his/her ancestors were not vegetarians, and people tend to confuse personal beliefs with scientific reality,” adds Prof. Ran Barkai, also of the Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and a co-author of the paper.

“Our study is both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. We propose a picture that is unprecedented in its inclusiveness and breadth, which clearly shows that humans were initially apex predators, who specialized in hunting large animals. As Darwin discovered, the adaptation of species to obtaining and digesting their food is the main source of evolutionary changes, and thus the claim that humans were apex predators throughout most of their development may provide a broad basis for fundamental insights on the biological and cultural evolution of humans.”

The paper “The evolution of the human trophic level during the Pleistocene” has been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

This is the first rib-eye steak that didn’t require killing an animal

Image credits: Aleph Farms / Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

It’s almost shocking to see how quickly lab-grown meat technology is progressing. It seems that it was sci-fi almost yesterday and now already, we have the first government-approved lab meat in Singapore, in the form of chicken nuggets.

But chicken nuggets only get you so far. If we want to get people to eat lab-grown meat, you need to make a good steak, and that’s exactly what a new start-up managed to produce.

Why go to all this trouble

Why would you go to all the trouble of developing a new technology and a complex process when you could just, you know, cut a cow?

Meat production is one of the most environmentally damaging food industries out there. Its climate impact roughly equivalent to the driving of every car in the world — and it’s not just the emissions.

The meat industry is also associated with deforestation and environmental degradation, and calorie per calorie (or protein per protein), it uses much more water and land than alternatives. There’s also the fact that you’re killing an animal to eat, which for many is reason enough.

Alas, meat tastes good, and for many, it’s just too hard to pass up. So researchers have come up with a way around that: growing meat in a laboratory.

Essentially, you get real animal cells but without having to slaughter animals. It’s cruelty-free meat, and (researchers hope) it can also be done with fewer resources and emissions than regular meat.

The basis of the technology comes from regenerative medicine, where cell samples are used to grow entire tissues and organs. With cultivated meat, you use cells to grow fat and muscle tissues, and grow them on a scaffold that allows them to develop in three dimensions. All it takes is a starter pack of cells obtained from an animal biopsy.

Unlike regular 3D printing though, this uses actual living cells that are incubated in a broth rich in nutrients, and then grow and develop like a living tissue. Several companies are showing remarkable progress. Recently, one such company, Aleph Farms, presented the first lab-grown rib-eye steak.

Image credits: Aleph Farms / Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

It incorporates muscle and fat just like the real deal, and it’s reportedly as juicy and tasty as a prime steak from the butcher.

“With the realization of this milestone, we have broken the barriers to introducing new levels of variety into the cultivated meat cuts we can now produce. As we look into the future of 3D bioprinting, the opportunities are endless,” says Technion Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Aleph’s Co-Founder, Chief Scientific Advisor and a major contributor behind the company

The steak was grown in partnership with the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and is reportedly, the first grown rib-eye steak in the world.

Creating diverse types of lab-grown meat is important if the approach is ever to become mainstream — and according to a new report that claims Europe and the US will reach “peak meat” by 2025, this seems more important than ever.

Technion researchers: Iris Ianovici, Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Aleph’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor; and Yedidya Zagury, PhD. Credit: Nitzan Zohar: Office of the Spokesperson, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology

Many questions still remain, especially about the scalability of the operation and the price. The price, in particular, is a concern. Meat isn’t particularly expensive in most parts of the world, and in order to compete, lab-grown meat needs to be at least in a comparable price range.

But for now, the creators of this rib-eye steak seem to be relishing their achievement.

“This breakthrough reflects an artistic expression of the scientific expertise of our team,” enthuses Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “I am blessed to work with some of the greatest people in this industry. We recognize some consumers will crave thicker and fattier cuts of meat. This accomplishment represents our commitment to meeting our consumer’s unique preferences and taste buds, and we will continue to progressively diversify our offerings,” adds Toubia. “Additional meat designs will drive a larger impact in the mid and long term. This milestone for me marks a major leap in fulfilling our vision of leading a global food system transition toward a more sustainable, equitable and secure world.”

New approach to lab-grown meat creates more realistic, more customizable steaks

A new study details how to create lab-grown meat that has a more natural taste and texture. The process will also allow more control over the structure of the meat, so consumers will be able to pick the exact amount of fat content or marbling they want.

Image via Pixabay.

Steakhouses today may ask customers how they’d like their meat to be cooked, but a new paper from McMaster University could mean they’ll soon ask how we’d like it “tuned”. Their paper describes how a more natural feeling and tasting type of lab-grown meat can be produced. According to the authors, this will provide a more “real meat” experience and allow people to have as much fat or marbling on their cut of meat as they want.

Sheets to slabs

“We are creating slabs of meat,” co-author Ravi Selvaganapathy says in a media release. “Consumers will be able to buy meat with whatever percentage of fat they like – just like they do with milk.”

The authors, both from McMaster’s School of Biomedical Engineering, developed a new technique to create lab-grown meat. It involves stacking thin sheets of cultivated muscle and fat tissues, then merging them together. It’s similar to the approach we use to grow human tissue for transplants, the authors explain.

Each of these sheets is as thin as a sheet of paper, and they’re made from cells first grown in a lab culture. They naturally bind to one another while the cells are alive, says Selvaganapathy. This process helps impart the improved texture to the meat. The team tested their approach with cells harvested from lab mice. They didn’t eat that one, but they did eventually grow, cook, and taste a sample from rabbit cells.

“It felt and tasted just like meat,” Selvaganapathy reports.

Although their experiments didn’t include these types of cells as well, the team is confident that beef, pork, or chicken will be growable using this approach in the future. The stacking-sheets approach is also easily scaled-up for industrial production, they add.

The global demand for meat is putting a heavy strain on nature, as it takes a lot of food, water, and land to grow our livestock — and they also produce ample methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Factory farms also need to feed their animals antibiotics constantly to avoid disease, which is helping bacteria develop resistance to drugs. Lab-grown meat can help address this demand much more cleanly and efficiently.

“Meat production right now is not sustainable,” Selvaganapathy contends. “There has to be an alternative way of creating meat.”

The McMaster team is currently working on a start-up company that can produce meat using this technique and sell it commercially.

The paper “Engineering Murine Adipocytes and Skeletal Muscle Cells in Meat-like Constructs Using Self-Assembled Layer-by-Layer Biofabrication: A Platform for Development of Cultivated Meat” has been published in the journal Cells Tissues Organs.

Organic meat has the same impact on the world’s climate as ‘normal’ meat

Organic meat, usually highlighted as friendlier to the environment, actually has a climate cost as high as conventionally farmed meat. According to a new study, which estimated the greenhouse gas emissions (GEI) resulting from different foods in Germany, the only eco-friendly meat is no meat at all.

Image credit: Flickr / Oli

A team of German researchers wanted to explore the “invisible” environmental costs of food production, from land use and fertilizers to methane emissions and transportation. They focused on meat products, dairy, and plant-based food and compared organic and conventional production in each case.

The results are striking. Compared to conventional farming, organic methods improve the emissions profile of dairy and plant-based products, reducing their impact on the planet, because organic farming bans the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers, which brings down the emissions costs of this production method.

But meat was the big exception.

Conventional and organic methods of meat accounted for similar high emissions costs, the study showed. For the researchers, this might be because organic livestock needs more land to satisfy the welfare standard and because of its lower productivity, making it less efficient than conventional methods.

Emissions from conventional livestock come from their manure and, for cows and sheep, by burping methane. The grain can also lead to emissions if it’s linked to deforestation. While organic cows don’t eat imported fodder and are grass-fed, they grow more slowly and release more emissions before slaughter.

“We expected organic farming to score better for animal-based products but, for greenhouse gas emissions, it actually doesn’t make much difference,” Maximilian Pieper, lead researcher, told The Guardian. “But in certain other aspects, organic is certainly better than conventional farming.”

But that was only one part of the study. Pieper wanted to make the environmental cost more tangible for consumers, to put a clear environmental “price tag” on different meat products.

According to the team’s calculations, conventionally-produced meat would have to be 150% more expensive than now to account for the environmental impact. By comparison, organically-produced and plant-based foods would have to cost just 6% more. In other words, organic meat is priced to reflect its environmental impact, while conventional meat is cheap because no one is paying for the environmental damage it causes.

The research is based on the “polluter pays” principle, which suggests that those whose actions cause harm to the environment should bear the responsibility of paying for it. This would be represented perfectly in the choice to eat a meatier diet over one with more plant-based foods — but only if the price of meat actually reflected the true environmental cost.

A very cheap piece of meat is actually hiding the true impact on the planet and providing no incentive to make better food (and environment) choices. But if the “polluter pays” principle is applied, the higher cost of meat would encourage a shift away from more environmentally-harmful diets based on meat towards greener ones richer in plants.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Increases in the price of vegetables and fruits would make healthier food unaffordable for many. And essential food, which for many people includes beef and dairy for nutritional purposes, shouldn’t become unaffordable. To prevent this, the researchers suggested using government subsidies and social compensation measures as alternatives to an extra environmental tax.

If changes are applied sensitively, there would also be trickle-down benefits, the researchers argue. Meat consumption would be reduced by driving more sustainable choices with the cost. This would free up land from livestock that could be returned to nature, which would help for the recovery of ecosystems around the world.

Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, not part of the study, told The Guardian. “The policy implications are clear: applying an emissions price across all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, would provide a consistent and much-needed incentive to change towards healthier and more sustainable diets that are predominantly plant-based.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

No-meat diets won’t fix the climate — too many poor countries can’t adopt them

Removing all meat from the human diet to protect the environment isn’t a workable solution outside rich countries, a new paper reports.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Calls to remove all meat from our diets to limit CO2 emissions are only realistic in rich, industrialized regions. In low- or middle-income countries, livestock can represent a critical source of income and food, the paper argues, making such changes practically impossible for locals.

Let’s meat halfway

“Conclusions drawn in widely publicized reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialized, Western systems,” said Birthe Paul, the lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Animal sourced foodstuffs such as meat and dairy are a much heavier burden on the environment than plant-sourced items. As such, many governments and organizations around the world are urging citizens to reduce their intake of the former and include more of the latter. As a bonus, plant-based items tend to be healthier, too.

But we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is all it will take to address climate change. For many people, such a shift is simply impossible without a massive blow to their and their families’ financial and food security. Livestock are extremely important sources of food and repositories of value for people in low- and middle-income countries. Asking them to give up animal products is asking them to shoot themselves in the foot, the team argues.

Of all scientific literature published since 1945 on the subject of livestock only 13% covers Africa, they note — yet Africa houses around 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep, and goat populations, respectively. Although livestock makes up a key pillar of local economies in Africa, eight of the world’s top 10 institutes publishing livestock research are based overseas. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa.

The authors argue that this has left us biased in regards to research on livestock. As western nations focus more and more on climate change, they’re driven to understand the effects the livestock industry has on climate. This leaves out a lot of the picture, they add, including the positive role such animals can play, both from an environmental and socio-economic point of view. It also leaves out a huge difference — animals in Africa are rarely reared the same way that they are in highly-industrialized nations.

“Mixed systems in low- and middle-income countries, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” said An Notenbaert, from the Alliance of Bioversity International, co-author of the paper.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialized livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”

A common approach in African savannas is to keep herds in pens at night, which has been shown to increase the levels of nutrients available in the whole ecosystem, the authors argue. Feed is produced more locally and in more sustainable fashion, whereas industrialized nations import most of their feed (which means more fuel and infrastructure is needed to transport it). Such imports are also a driver of ecological damage — the authors note that soybean produced and exported as feed to animals in Vietnam and Europe is a leading cause for deforestation in the Amazon.

While livestock are an important source of greenhouse gases, we simply don’t have the data needed to establish national mitigation strategies in this regard. The authors also urge that we look beyond making animals more productive, and turn instead to looking at how we can be more resource efficient and what systems can be put in place to limit emissions from them.

“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialized, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute and co-author of the paper.

“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialized systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”

Meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is much lower than that in developed countries, also. The paper cites estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization, according to which average yearly meat consumption per capita here will be roughly 13kgs by 2028; in the US, this figure is expected to reach 100kgs in the same timeframe.

The authors point to a range of higher-impact environmental solutions. Among them, improved animal feed so animals emit less greenhouse gases like methane per kilogram of milk or meat. Better land management and approaches such as using manure and crop byproducts for fertilizers (by plowing them into the soil) would have a significant positive impact on farm output as well as the environment.

The paper “Sustainable livestock development in low and middle income countries – shedding light on evidence-based solutions” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Health professionals in the UK call for a climate tax on meat

A coalition of health professionals from the United Kingdom is calling to implement a climate tax on foodstuffs with a large environmental impact by 2025. The climate change crisis can’t be solved without taking steep action to reduce the consumption of food that causes high emissions, such as beef and dairy, they argued.

Credit Flickr Oli

The Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), which represents doctors, nurses, and other health professionals from the UK, argued in a report that it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless there is a transformation in the way the world produces food and manages land.

Food production and consumption account for around 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, half of which is related to imports (largely through feed crops and the related deforestation), rather than locally-produced food. Red meat consumption will need to be cut by 50% to stay within sustainable environmental limits, they argued.

Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, ambassador of UKHACC, said in a statement: “Most activity to limit climate change has focused on decarbonizing energy and transportation. This is very important, but we mustn’t overlook the potential to mitigate the dangerous health effects of climate change by rethinking our approach to food.”

UKHACC carried out a poll among healthcare workers and found that two-thirds agreed that changing your diet in a way that reduces its environmental impact can also improve your health. At the same time, the results showed that 40% of those surveyed had already changed their own eating habits due to environmental concerns.

Food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. A growing number of scientific studies have shown that red meat and dairy have far bigger impacts than plant-based food. People in rich nations already eat more meat than recommended, so it’s not only about the environment but also about health.

Professor Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians, said in a statement: “I am the first to admit that I enjoy a steak every now and then, but it’s clear that if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global warming we must start to reconsider our attitudes to food.”

In their report, the health professionals argued that the UK government has to do more to encourage, enable, and support changes in food production and dietary habits. They listed a set of recommendations, including carrying out public information campaigns on diet to include climate messages and using labels on food to show their environmental impact.

Not as easy as it seems

While health experts in the UK ask for further action, the Danish government has already taken concrete steps but was forced to backtrack. Authorities had introduced two vegetarian days a week in state canteens but trade unions objected to the move, leading to a U-turn on the policy a week after implementation.

Denmark has been trying for a while now to make cuts in the nation’s diet-related footprint to help meet its ambitious new climate targets. As well as these vegetarian days, the government is planning to introduce initiatives to help reduce emissions from the farming sector.

Anne Paulin, a climate spokesperson for the ruling Social Democrats, told the Guardian that the recent move aimed at setting an example on greener eating habits. Now, they have reached a more “pragmatic solution” as the vegetarian days will be voluntary. “We should eat less meat for climate and health reasons,” she added.

While Greenpeace said the government’s U-turn was “embarrassing,” the Danish food industry said the move wasn’t necessarily beneficial in reducing climate emissions. They said Danish food products are among “the most climate efficient in the world” and changing diets would force importing food from aboard with laxer environmental standards.

Credit: Pixabay.

As meat shortages loom, Trump signs executive order to keep meat plants open

Using the Defense Production Act, Trump is ordering slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to stay open, to prevent or limit meat shortages in the market. The move has been slammed by unions as reckless and putting people’s lives at risk.

Credit: Pixabay.
Credit: Pixabay.

A handful of companies produce the vast majority of meat in the US. Earlier this week, one of these companies — Tyson Foods — warned that “its supply chain is breaking” due to the coronavirus. Tyson has closed several production facilities and reduced activity at many others, sparking fears that production will be severely affected and ultimately, a meat shortage may hit the market.

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,“ a Tyson full-page ad wrote on Sunday in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

According to unofficial statements, the vast majority of meat processing plants would have shut down, reducing processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%. Therefore, Trump’s new order will label these plants as “critical infrastructure”, essentially forcing them to remain open.

The order was signed under the Defense Production Act, which allows government to direct industrial production in times of crisis. Trump threatened to invoke the law to increase the supply of medical gear such as ventilators or face masks for the coronavirus outbreak.

However, unions and workers’ organizations have slammed this move as irresponsible. The Environmental Working Group, an American activist group that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants, and corporate accountability called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either.

These concerns are not unjustified. COVID-19 has killed at least 20 workers in the meat processing industry, and 5,000 workers have either tested positive or have been forced to self-quarantine.

Many see the move as prioritizing economic activity over the lives and safety of workers, as well as end consumers.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told Bloomberg.

Meat companies have been eager to reopen shop, but some analysts have blamed the companies themselves for being a part of the problem.

Essentially, the fact that so few plants are responsible for so much meat processing means that even the closure of a few centers can cause significant disruption.

“This is 100 percent a symptom of consolidation,” said Christopher Leonard, author of “The Meat Racket,” which examines the protein industry. “We don’t have a crisis of supply right now. We have a crisis in processing. And the virus is exposing the profound fragility that comes with this kind of consolidation.”

People eat 80% less meat when there are more veggie options on the menu

Researchers found that re-arranging a menu can drastically influence people’s dietary choices, encouraging them to eat less meat. According to the study, doubling the number of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu reduced the number of meat orders by up to 80%. The restaurants’ overall sales of food were not affected by the extra meat-free options.

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge. Credit: University of Cambridge.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed a year’s worth of cafeteria sales data. In total, more than 94,000 meal choices were assessed from three colleges at Cambridge.

The study found that increasing the number of vegetarian options from 25% of the menu’s items to 50% lead to significantly more meat-free orders. According to the results, the number of meat orders fell by 40% to 80%, without affecting the cafeteria’s sales. What’s more, the researchers found no evidence of the so-called “rebound effect” — the idea that customers who eat less meat at lunch might compensate by eating more in the evening.

This is the first study that investigated how rearranging a menu can influence meat-free meals.

“Shifting to a more plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways of reducing the environmental footprint of food,” said study lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist and PhD candidate from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. 

“Replacing some meat or fish with more vegetarian options might seem obvious, but as far as we know no one had tested it before. Solutions that seem obvious don’t always work, but it would appear that this one does.”

The findings are important in today’s climate emergency context. Livestock provides only 18% of all the calories we consume, but takes up 83% of all farmland. Every pound of beef requires about 8000 liters of water, whereas an equivalent quantity of potatoes consumes over a thousand times less water. Even eggs only need about of fifth of what beef needs.

Environmental aspects aside, eating less animal protein is also better for your health, with studies showing that it increases lifespan. Most recently, the widely publicized EAT-Lancet Report, produced by an international team of health, agriculture and sustainability experts, recommended consuming less than half an ounce of red meat per day.

While going vegetarian or vegan is not for everyone, consuming less meat — say from every day to once a week — can have a huge positive impact on the environment.

“Flexitarianism is on the rise. Our results show that caterers serving more plant-based options are not just responding to but also reshaping customer demand,” Garnett said.

“Simple changes such as increasing the proportion of vegetarian options could be usefully scaled up, helping to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.  

More and more people are growing aware of the need for more sustainable practices in the global food supply, with millennials being the fastest to react.

Co-author Theresa Marteau, Professor of Behaviour and Health at Cambridge, said: “Education is important but generally ineffective at changing diets. Meat taxes are unpopular. Altering the range of available options is more acceptable, and offers a powerful way to influence the health and sustainability of our diets.”

And, wherever there’s a pressing problem, innovation is bound to happen. One such innovation is plant-based meat, such as the growingly popular Impossible Burger by Impossible Foods, which relies on an ingredient from genetically modified yeast to incorporate “heme,” an iron-containing molecule into the product, allowing its meats to “bleed.” While such meat-free alternatives are rather expensive today, a recent study found that they will soon become cheaper than real meat once the industry scales.

Not a real meat burger. Credit: Beyond Meat.

Lab-grown meat market could be worth $85 billion by 2030

“Fake meat” might have sounded like a gross, even laughable idea just a decade ago. But after Beyond Meat Inc., the vegan burger maker, surpassed $200 per share last month (after a $25 offering price), who’s laughing now?

Not a real meat burger. Credit: Beyond Meat.

Not a real meat burger. Credit: Beyond Meat.

According to a new report by UBS Global Wealth Management, advances have triggered an agricultural revolution that is set to greatly expand the broader agriculture technology market, which is expected to reach $700 billion in 2030 from $135 billion today. The plant-protein (aka fake meat) market looks particularly promising, with experts estimating that it should swell from $4.6 billion to a staggering $85 billion by 2030.

And all of this is great news for basically everyone — apart from those involved in intensive animal farming.

Lab-grown food isn’t just some fad poised to come and go with the seasons. Agriculture currently accounts for 40% of land use, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of freshwater consumption. The world’s population is expected to hit the 10 billion mark in 2050, and billions currently living in developing countries are expected to experience higher incomes, which they’ll use to buy more meat. For instance, China’s economy has grown tremendously and this is mirrored in the country’s meat consumption. The average person in 1960s China consumed less than 5kg a year. By the late 1980s, this had risen to 20kg, and in the last few decades, this has more than tripled to over 60kg.

The world simply cannot produce this much meat, nor should it. Plant-based proteins which replicate the nutritional value, texture, and even taste of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products will become more and more appealing as the technology improves. In the future, consumers should have access to cheaper and more “meat-like” plant-based protein, and this will be reflected in huge market growth. Simply put, real meat will turn into a luxury item while “fake” meat will be there to fill the void.

This shift in attitude is already going strong in consumer behavior. For instance, in early May, news emerged that Impossible Foods (a company at the forefront of the recent boom in fast-food meatless meat) was struggling to produce enough to meet the growing demand for their products. Their products are now sold at Burger King, White Castle, as well as chains like Red Robin. Sales of such plant-based proteins grew 10% in 2018, while the conventional meat industry grew just 2%, according to a recent report from the Good Food Institute.

The 67-page report from UBS also outlines various other avenues for market growth in agriculture as a result of digitization. For instance, UBS forecasts that by 2030, smart farming and online food delivery will grow by 16%, seed treatment by 13%, and seed science by 9%.


Grasshoppers, silkworms, giant cicadas are a good source of antioxidants — if you eat them

Insect-based dinner might not sound very enticing but new research shows it’s definitely packed full of antioxidants.


Image credits Will Brown / Flickr.

A new study reports that edible insects and other creepy crawlies are comparable foods such as olive oil and orange juice in antioxidant content. The findings come as an effort to further entice people to consider insects as part of their diet, a move that would have huge implications for the sustainability and environmental footprint of agriculture worldwide.

Young grasshopper — sautéd

“At least 2 billion people — a quarter of the world’s population — regularly eat insects,” says Prof. Mauro Serafini, lead author of the study published in Frontiers in Nutrition. “The rest of us will need a bit more encouragement.”

“Edible insects are an excellent source of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals, vitamins and fiber. But until now, nobody had compared them with classical functional foods such as olive oil or orange juice in terms of antioxidant activity.”

The fact of the matter is that what most of us put on the table, combined with how many people Earth houses currently, simply doesn’t make for a sustainable future. Insects can help us address this issue; they have a much more modest environmental footprint than livestock, and are a great source of nutrients. However, most people are quite reluctant to come anywhere near these animals, let alone put them in their mouth.

Those who do, however, will likely see the benefits, the new paper reports. According to the analysis, crickets pack 75% the antioxidant power of fresh OJ, and silkworm fat twice that of olive oil. The team hopes that the findings will provide the nudge many people need to consider including these insects into their diets. That taste and presentation are key elements of food, they write, but hope that the ‘selfish and immediate incentives’ provided by the insects’ antioxidant properties will be enough to convince some consumers.

“Consumption of foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruit and vegetables, play an important role in the prevention of oxidative stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer,” the study explains.

Antioxidants are substances that bind free-radicals, uncharged molecules which are typically highly reactive and short-lived that damage cells and tissues. The team tested a range of commercially-available insects and invertebrates for their antioxidant activity. The inedible parts of these animals (such as wings or stingers) were removed, after which the insects were ground up.

Two parts were extracted from each species: a fat- and a water-soluble fraction. Each extract was then tested for antioxidant content and activity. Water-soluble extracts of grasshoppers, silkworms, and crickets have “antioxidant capacity 5-fold higher than fresh orange juice,” the authors report. The fat-soluble fractions of evening cicadas and silkworms showed twice the antioxidant activity of olive oil. “For perspective, using the same setup we tested the antioxidant capacity of fresh orange juice and olive oil — functional foods that are known to exert antioxidant effects in humans,” adds Serafini.

Fat-soluble fraction.

Trolox Equivalent Antioxidant Capacity (TEAC) of fat-soluble extracts compared to olive oil.
Image credits Selena Ahmed et al., (2019), Frontiers.

Water-soluble fraction.

Trolox Equivalent Antioxidant Capacity (TEAC) of water-soluble extracts compared to fresh orange juice.
Image credits Selena Ahmed et al., (2019), Frontiers.


However, these values are representative for the dry, isolated extracts, which aren’t something you’d want to eat. The water content of the insects was within 2-7% while orange juice is 88% water; most foods fall somewhere in between the two. A glass of 88% water, 12% grasshopper or silkworm extract would have around three-quarters of the antioxidative effect of a glass of OJ.

Another interesting finding is that the insects showed a lower total content of polyphenols (a major source of plant-derived antioxidant activity) across the board compared to orange juice. However, this compound alone couldn’t account for the full antioxidant capacity seen in the study — suggesting that insects also contain a yet-unknown substance with antioxidant capacity.

“The in vivo efficiency [i.e. in humans] of antioxidant-rich food is highly dependent on bioavailability and the presence of an ongoing oxidative stress. So as well as identifying other antioxidant compounds in insects, we need tailored intervention studies to clarify their antioxidant effects in humans,” Serafini says.

“In the future, we might also adapt dietary regimens for insect rearing in order to increase their antioxidant content for animal or human consumption.”

The paper “Antioxidant Activities in vitro of Water and Liposoluble Extracts Obtained by Different Species of Edible Insects and Invertebrates” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Impossible Burger.

Demand for Impossible Burgers is so large that the producer can’t keep up

The Impossible Burger turned out to be impossible to supply in the quantities customers want — but things are looking up.

Impossible Burger.

Impossible Burger at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Image credits Tony Webster.

You may be familiar with Impossible Foods, the California-based company that produces arguably the most successful meat-mimicking, plant-based burger patty. Made from heme, an iron-containing compound that mimics a meaty flavor, this patty has a smaller environmental footprint than its beef counterpart, and it has become extremely popular since its debut in 2016.

So popular, in fact, that the company is struggling to cover demand.

Selling like hot patties

“[Impossible Foods] recognizes the inconvenience that this shortage is causing and sincerely apologizes to all customers, particularly those who have come to depend on the additional foot traffic and revenue that the Impossible Burger has generated,” the company stated in a press release.

A Burger King trial run of the plant-based burger in St. Louis went “exceedingly well,” writes Inhabitat. So the two set up a partnership, with Impossible Foods planning to make the burger available in all Burger King locations across the United States by the end of 2019, which is over 7,300 locations. So the pressure is definitely on the company, which recently announced difficulties in producing enough Impossible Burgers to cover the current demand.

To make matters worse, those theme parks, universities, and restaurants that do already serve the Impossible Burger (like White Castle) say demand for the product is soaring — which amplifies the shortage. In light of these developments, Impossible Foods released a statement apologizing for the situation and pledging to address the situation.

Silver linings, however: impossible food has the ingredients on hand to sustain higher production volumes. However, their current facilities are simply unable to produce enough patties. The company announced that it would need to double its output to adequately cover supply, which they plan to do by adding a third shift and installing another production line. No word on exactly when these changes will be implemented, but a spokesperson says the company is committed to them.

Until then, Impossible Burgers advises customers to call ahead before visiting a venue to check if the burger is in stock.

Eating a lot of animal protein probably means you’ll have a shorter life

Finnish researchers found that a diet rich in animal protein, particularly red meat, increases a person’s risk of death compared to individuals who include plant-based protein in their diet.

Credit: Pixabay.

The study was performed by a team of researchers at the University of Eastern Finland, who analyzed the data from the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD). The study included the diets of about 2,600 Finnish men aged between 42 and 60 at the start of the study in 1984. Researchers performed follow-ups with the participants up 20 years after the study’s onset.

The results suggest that men whose primary source of protein was animal-based had a 23% higher risk of death compared to men who ate a balanced ratio of animal and plant-based protein. Specifically, men who ate more than 200 grams of meat per day had a 23% higher risk of premature death during the follow-up than men whose meat intake was less than 100 grams per day. As a caveat, the study only included Finnish men who primarily consumed red meat (i.e. pork, beef), which is associated with more health problems than white meat (i.e. chicken).

Previously, researchers found that red meat (and processed meats) causes cancer, common inflammatory bowel condition, and raises the risk of premature death.

High protein intake, whether animal- or plant-based, was associated with a greater risk of death in individuals who had type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer at the onset of the study. High protein intake did not seem to be associated with an increase in the risk of death for healthy people.

“However, these findings should not be generalized to older people who are at a greater risk of malnutrition and whose intake of protein often remains below the recommended amount,” Ph.D. Student Heli Virtanen from the University of Eastern Finland points out.

The findings appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In the future, researchers would like to gain a better understanding of the relationship between different sources of protein and their health effects.


Neanderthal diet revolved around meat, new study finds

Neanderthals may have enjoyed their meat — often.


Image via Pixabay.

An international research effort has found that Neanderthals were predominantly meat-eaters. The findings come from isotope analysis performed on Neanderthal remains recovered in France.

Haute cuisine

Our understanding of the Neanderthals has changed profoundly over time. At first, we simply assumed they were brutish, more ape than human. Among other characteristics, the prevailing theory was that their diets were primarily vegetarian — big apes are largely vegetarian, this line of thinking went, so Neanderthals must have been the same, right?

We’ve come a long way since then. Archeological evidence revealed that far from being simple-minded and lacking in general skills and finesse, these ancient humans were quite capable. They enjoyed beauty for beauty’s sake, they developed refined tools, established cultural and spiritual practices, and — as they managed to woo our ancestors into bed/the cave — some were probably quite dashing, as well.

The new study comes to flesh out our understanding of what Neanderthals liked to dine on. The team analyzed proteins from preserved collagen in Neanderthal bones found at two dig sites in France: the remains of a one-year-old baby found at Grotte du Renne, and a tooth from Les Cottés. The results show that Neanderthals were neither vegetarian nor simply content with scavenging meat from the kills of other beasts. In fact, they probably killed said beasts and ate them.

The team reports that the ratios of nitrogen-15 to nitrogen-14 isotopes in the collagen samples are similar to what we’d see today in major meat eaters — wolves or lions, for example. The findings, the team explains, add to the body of evidence pointing to the Neanderthals being predominantly meat eaters.

Nitrogen ratio analysis is a widely-used tool for diet reconstruction in ancient species. Nitrogen is a reliable indicator of an organism’s position in a food chain, as organisms obtain it solely through diet. Higher N-15 to N-14 ratios are indicative of carnivores — who concentrate nitrogen from lower trophic levels through diet. The ratio the team found in the Neanderthal collagen is slightly higher than that found in carnivore remains at Neanderthal sites, which the team takes as evidence the Neanderthal’s high position in their local food webs.

There’s also a growing body of indirect evidence supporting this view, the authors note. Previous discoveries of spears found alongside their remains, as well as evidence of butchered animal bodies, suggests that they were quite adept at hunting and processing game. Neanderthals also likely had a bulkier, thicker thorax than modern humans (that’s us). This constitution allowed for larger kidneys and livers compared to our own, a feature common among animals whose diets are heavy in animal protein.

They note that another possibility is that the high ratios were owed to a diet heavy in mammoth meat, putrefying meat (I hope it was the mammoth), or fish. The team used a novel technique called compound-specific isotope analyses (CSIA) to separately analyze each amino acid found in the collagen. The exact isotope composition of amino acids is heavily influenced by diet.

“Using this technique, we discovered that the Neandertal of Les Cottés had a purely terrestrial carnivore diet: she was not a late weaned child or a regular fish eater [fish was not readily accessible at either site], and her people seem to have mostly hunted reindeers and horses”, says Klervia Jaouen, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and first author of the study.

“We also confirmed that the Grotte du Renne Neandertal was a breastfeeding baby whose mother was a meat eater”.

Another finding was that Neanderthal diets were likely very stable over time, primarily meat, even after they had started to refine tool-processing techniques (possibly as a consequence of interacting with modern humans).

Taken as a whole, the study explains, these tidbits support the view that meat, particularly that obtained from herbivorous animals, was the main constituent of the Neanderthal diet. Small game was likely predominant on the menu, given that bones of fawns and other similarly-sized animals have been found at numerous Neanderthal dig sites and that smaller game is more readily killed with spears — but, as this study reveals, local food resources likely altered what Neanderthals ate in various areas.

The paper “Exceptionally high δ15N values in collagen single amino acids confirm Neandertals as high-trophic level carnivores” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Scientists zoom in on more realistic plant-based meat substitutes

In many parts of the world, meat substitutes have already become quite common. Whether it’s for ethical, ecological, or even health reasons, many people are choosing to reduce their meat consumption, and that’s a really good decision. But for some, there’s just no replacement for the chewy consistency of meat — so researchers are looking at ways to make replacements more meat-like.

This is a vegetarian cordon bleu. Image Credits: Quorn.

It’s not just about the taste, a lot about what makes meat so appealing relies on the texture. Whether they’re based on soy, mycoprotein, or other concoctions, few meat replacements actually have a similar texture to meat. This prompted researchers from TU Berlin and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) to examine what makes meat so uniquely chewy.

“This mouthfeel is based primarily on the fiber-like texture of meat,” explains Dr. Azad Emin from KIT. The process engineer is head of the “Extrusion of Biopolymers” junior research group in the Food Process Engineering (LVT) section of the Institute of Process Engineering in Life Sciences at KIT.

Most of the time, the food industry uses a process called extrusion, in which the raw food mass is passed through a nozzle, a process which is also used to process other foods, like breakfast cereal. Essentially, a dough-like mass is produced, mixed with water, and then heated and pushed through the cooled nozzle. The interaction between pressure, temperature, and shear pressure on one side, and the nature of the raw material on the other, is what decides the resulting texture.


Exploring meat textures: micro-computed tomography (µCT) displays the product structure. Image Credits: Patrick Wittek, KIT.

To understand exactly how to create an exact meat copy, Emin and colleagues have focused on these interactions. Surprisingly, many of the details of this process remain unknown, and most of the time, it involves a lot of trial-and-error testing. Instead of this, researchers went for a more process-based approach, carrying out precise measurements within the extruder as well as computer-based simulations. They also carried out detailed visualization of the product’s microstructure, using micro-CT scanners (miniaturized versions of CT scanners). This allowed them to develop a framework in which they could see how changing physical parameters would create different results.

“We have developed an approach and a method which enable the process to be examined and controlled with the focus on changes in texture,” says Emin.

Now, the team will take things to the next level, with a joint research project also involving industrial partners. The project is called “Texturing Mechanisms in the Wet Extrusion of Soy and Pea Protein” and has received a hefty three-year funding from Germany’s government: $780,000.

“In further research, we want to make the texture and mouthfeel even more meat-like by adding lipids and pretextured protein components,” Emin concludes, underlining that in light of the world’s growing population, plant-based “meats” use far less resources while providing equally nutritious alternatives.

Meat and dairy are bad for the climate and the environment, researchers urge

The livestock sector alone could soon use almost half of our greenhouse gas emission budget for maintaining global warming at 1.5˚C, a new study concludes. Researchers urge people to reconsider meat and dairy consumption.

Eat more plants!

The are several reasons to reduce our meat consumption — particularly red meat. Even ignoring the ethical argument, meat provides a plethora of environmental problems. For instance, beef production requires way more water than a myriad of other, equally nutritious options. Intensive livestock production also requires large quantities of harvested feed, which translates to extremely high land usage. From a purely resource-focused perspective, it also doesn’t make sense: a recent analysis found that more than 80% of farmland is used for livestock but it produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of the protein consumed by humans. To make matters even worse, meat is also responsible for a hefty chunk of our greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock (including poultry) accounts for about 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and a recent study found that reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change — particularly with a rising global population.

“Feeding a world population of 10 billion is possible, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we produce food,” said Prof Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who was part of the research team. “Greening the food sector or eating up our planet: this is what is on the menu today.”

Now, a new study by Dr. Helen Harwatt, an animal law and policy fellow at Harvard Law School, concludes that if we want to limit climate change, we need to take more of our protein from plant sources, not animals.

The article reports that the current livestock population in the world is around 28 billion animals. This industry is the highest source of two major greenhouse gases: methane and nitrous oxide. Although methane has a much shorter lifespan compared to carbon dioxide, it has an 85-times-greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. As a result of the growth of the industry, methane emissions from the livestock sector are projected to rise by 60% by 2030 — in a timeframe where our planet needs a reduction, not an increase of emissions.

“Given the livestock sector’s significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and methane dominance, animal to plant protein shifts make a much-needed contribution to meeting the Paris temperature goals and reducing warming in the short term, while providing a suite of co-benefits,” Harwatt said.

She continued to say that global leaders should start to pay attention to this issue, particularly considering the upcoming UN meeting on addressing climate change (COP24).

“Failure to implement animal to plant protein shifts increases the risk of exceeding temperature goals and requires additional, and unrealistic, greenhouse gas reductions from other sectors. The current revision of national contributions to meeting the Paris Agreement from 2020 onwards should ideally integrate animal to plant-protein shifts. As a next step, the COP24 in December this year provides an excellent opportunity for policy makers to start this important conversation.”

Harwatt also laid out the skeleton of a plan to start working on reducing meat consumption:

  • Acknowledging that current numbers of livestock are at their peak and will need to decline (‘peak livestock’);
  • Setting concrete targets to transition away from livestock products starting with foods linked with the highest greenhouse gas emissions such as beef, then cow’s milk and pig meat (‘worst-first’ approach);
  • Assessing suitable replacement products against a range of criteria including greenhouse gas emission targets, land usage, and public health benefits (‘best available food’ approach).

She also expressed hope businesses can spearhead this initiative, reducing the purchase of animal products — tackling the ‘worst first’ and replacing them with best available foods.

“The food sector is already making progress on these issues and demonstrating that it’s commercially viable to incorporate animal to plant protein shifts. We need policy makers to enable the creation of Paris-compliant food systems on a much larger and faster scale – and animal to plant-protein shifts play a key role”.

Journal Reference: Including animal to plant protein shifts in climate change mitigation policy: a proposed three-step strategy; Climate Policy; https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2018.1528965; Helen Harwatt

Navajo pottery.

Ancient pottery portrays perilous path for agriculture under climate change

Ancient communities said ‘nay’ to beef and ‘yay’ to mutton and chevon when faced with shifting climates.

Navajo pottery.

Navajo American Indian Pottery. Not related to this study — but pretty!
Image via Pixabay.

We’re not the first generation to struggle with climate change. While our current predicament is of our own making, ancient communities also had to struggle with natural climate shifts. New research explores how farmers 8,200 years ago adapted to such changes.

Food for dry days

“Changes in precipitation patterns in the past are traditionally obtained using ocean or lake sediment cores,” says Dr. Mélanie Roffet-Salque, lead author of the paper. “This is the first time that such information is derived from cooking pots.”

“We have used the signal carried by the hydrogen atoms from the animal fats trapped in the pottery vessels after cooking. This opens up a completely new avenue of investigation – the reconstruction of past climate at the very location where people lived using pottery.”

The study centers on the Neolithic (late stone age) and Chalcolithic (copper age) city of Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, Turkey. Çatalhöyük was one of the first cities (if not the first city) to pop up, being settled from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC.

Some 8,200 years ago, an event would force these ancient city folk to change their lifestyle. A lake in northern Canada spewed huge quantities of glacial runoff into the ocean, which impacted global water currents, leading to a sudden drop in average temperatures. Hoping to get a better understanding of how such changes impacted the lives of people living during the time, a team led by Dr. Roffet-Salque from the University of Bristol looked at what these people ate.

Animal bones excavated at the site revealed that the city’s inhabitants tried their hand at rearing sheep and goats instead of cattle, as these smaller animals are more resistant to drought. The bones also show an unusually high number of cut marks. The team reports that this is a sign of people trying to free every last scrap of meat from the bones — suggesting that food was likely scarce.

This food scarcity was brought on by changes in precipitation patterns in the Anatolian region during this time, the team reports.

Food for… climate research?

The people of Çatalhöyük didn’t leave any written records we could check — but they did have clay pots used for preparing food. The analysis first revealed the presence of ruminant fats on the pots, which were consistent with and reinforced the hypothesis that herders in Çatalhöyük began favoring sheep and goats in their flocks.

This study is the first time that animal fat residues recovered in an archaeological setting have been used to gauge climate evolution in the past. The team analyzed the isotopic ratios of hydrogen atoms (the deuterium to hydrogen ratio) from these fats. Since animals incorporate atoms from their food and drink, the team found a change in this isotope ratio over the period corresponding to the climate event.

The authors also examined the animal fats surviving in ancient cooking pots. They detected the presence of ruminant carcass fats, consistent with the animal bone assemblage discovered at Çatalhöyük. For the first time, compounds from animal fats detected in pottery were shown to carry evidence for the climate event in their isotopic composition.

“It is really significant that the climate models of the event are in complete agreement with the H signals we see in the animal fats preserved in the pots,” says co-author Richard Evershed.

“The models point to seasonal changes farmers would have had to adapt to — overall colder temperatures and drier summers — which would have had inevitable impacts on agriculture.”

The findings are important given our own climatic complications. We didn’t really know the implications of this event — known as the 8.2 ka event — or that of a similar but smaller one called the 9.2 ka event. They’re encouraging in the sense that the effects weren’t as dramatic as they could have been. There is “no evidence for a simultaneous and widespread collapse, large-scale site abandonment, or migration at the time of the events,” which was a real possibility given that early populations were at the mercy of the environment.

However, the study shows that climate change does indeed come with impacts on the food supply. Society today is much better equipped to mitigate the effect of precipitations on crops, and our food networks span the globe. Even so, we’re still dependent on the environment, and there are many more mouths to feed today. In this light, the findings raise a warning that we should look to our crops lest plates go empty in the near future.

The paper “Evidence for the impact of the 8.2-kyBP climate event on Near Eastern early farmers” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lab-grown meat is almost upon us — and most Americans would gladly try it

Lab-grown chicken and beef have already started to hit the shelves. It might not be long until they become commonplace — and if that is the case, most people would welcome them, according to a new survey.

Brewing Burgers

Image by Flickr user régine debatty, via Faunalytics.

If you haven’t heard about “clean meat” or “lab-grown meat”, don’t beat yourself up — most people haven’t, the survey revealed. Clean meat is essentially in vitro, cultured meat, grown from animal cells, without actually raising or harming any animals. The process, producers say, is akin to brewing beer — except instead of brewing beer, you’re brewing burgers.

Two decades ago, this would have been purely a fantasy. Even a few years ago, lab-grown burgers had astronomical prices and were little more than a scientific curiosity. But things have changed. Several companies and research institutes have brought the price down, up to the point where it’s starting to look like a viable alternative.

“Clean meat is on the horizon,” says Jo Anderson, research director for Faunalytics, a nonprofit research organization that gathers data for animal advocates. The group performed the survey with support from the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “There are a lot of questions about how people are going to feel about it, what we can do to make sure that it’s perceived accurately so that it doesn’t raise concerns for people, and we just wanted to look into different ways of moving that process.”

Bad meat

Why, you might ask, would someone go through all this trouble just to have something that’s already easily available — like meat? Well, the reasons often start with ethics, but they don’t end there. Naturally, not having to subject millions and millions of animals to brutal living conditions, and then slaughtering them, is one of the advantages. But it’s definitely not the only one. It’s estimated that when clean meat reaches its potential, it will require less water, less land, and generate fewer emissions. By all metrics, it will be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than conventional meat. Given the massive environmental impact that agriculture (and particularly, animal growing) has, it could come as a much-needed boon.

But would people like it?

In a survey of nearly 1,200 participants, most said they weren’t familiar with the idea of clean meat. But after hearing a short definition, along with the benefits of the technique, 66.4% said they’d be willing to try it. Just under half (45.9%) said they’d be willing to replace conventional meat with it and buy it regularly.

Of course, this is still a small study, and if anything, it’s more likely to help producers rather than the general population — by seeing how receptive consumers are to different messages (which were compared in the survey), they can choose their angle accordingly and customize the selling points of the products.

Rather surprisingly, there seems to be an “ick factor” associated with lab-grown meat. Arguably, it’s not the most appealing of foods, but then again, comparing the way the vast majority of animals are kept and handled, one could argue that in vitro cultures are hardly more repulsive.

Lastly, the fact that this industry has developed so fast, and is almost ready to take the world by surprise, can be an advantage, Anderson says — if producers play their cards well.

“I actually think that it’s a benefit that not that many people are familiar with yet,” says Anderson. “It means that there’s sort of a clean slate to approach people with the information about the benefits of clean meat.”

So, what do you think about it? Would you try this type of meat? Would you consume it regularly? Leave your answers on the poll above and in the comment section!