Protein has always been an important part of our diets and the easiest way to get protein from has traditionally been meat. But lately there have been a number of concerns surrounding the excessive amount of meat we eat.
Healthwise, meat consumption can have significant negative repercussions, particularly if you eat too much of it. Excessive meat consumption has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer, to name just a few.
Then there’s the unethical treatment of animals, which many people regard as reason enough to steer away from meat consumption. Add in the fact that livestock farming accounts for 18% of global greenhouse emissions and 70% of all arable land, and consumes an ungodly amount of water, and you have even more reasons to give up on meat.
To keep up with the increasing demand for meat, producers also have to use antibiotics, which contributes to the superbug crisis and threatens to make some pathogens simply untreated. All in all, you could make a very good case for giving up meat, or at the very least, reducing consumption.
In the past years, several companies have tried to steer consumers away from traditional meat dishes by suggesting healthier, more sustainable alternatives, such as Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, or the Quorn meat substitute. These are all vegetarian substitutes. Impossible meat is made from plant-based substitutes, and Quorn is made from micro-mushrooms. But researchers are looking at a different opportunity: making a meat alternative... that's actually meat. Cultured meat, that is.
The science behind making lab-grown meat look and feel like meat
We all love a juicy burger, and one might think that the ingredient that makes it so irresistible – ground beef – is easy to replicate. After all, the meat is all ground and processed anyway. But if nailing the taste of ground beef is easier thanks to plant-based alternatives, getting lab-grown meat to look like the real thing is more complicated.
It all starts with what scientists call The Halo effect, which determines our perception of food based on the way it looks, not the way it tastes or smells. For us to find a burger made with cultured meat as appetizing as a regular one, scientists need to find a way to mimic the red juice that comes out of a steak or hamburger. Contrary to popular belief, that juice is not blood, it’s actually water mixed with bits of tissue and the color comes from a protein called myoglobin, which, if you’ve studied a bit of chemistry, you know is similar to the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin.
Scientists at the University of Tufts have recently found that adding myoglobin to cell cultures improved the meat’s color and texture, in a way that replicates the formation of natural muscle. So far, plant-based substitutes like the Impossible Burger have used heme proteins from soy, but the addition of myoglobin could help mature lab-grown muscle cells, giving them a realistic texture and look.
This finding was a major breakthrough because it could address one of the primary reasons why people are reluctant about cultured meat: it doesn’t look like the real thing. Although there is overwhelming evidence on the health and environmental impact of meat production, lab-grown meat will only be accepted by mainstream consumers when it looks and feels exactly like what they are used to.
Startups are changing the public’s perception of cultured and plant-based meat
Technology can improve food production and minimize waste. In the past few years, the food tech industry has really taken off, and many startups have come forth with innovative alternatives to traditional meat dishes.
As one of the biggest meat consumers in the world, the US is making great progress in culturing meat, but they face major competition from Israel, which is at the forefront of the food tech industry. For example, Future Meat Technologies, founded in 2018, has raised $14 million to build a manufacturing facility that would bring the production cost of a cell-made steak down to $10 (from the $50 target suggested by the Good Food Institute). Another start-up, Aleph Farms, was the first to sell lab-grown steaks and, with the $12 million they raised in their Series A funding, plan to build bio-farms that will grow muscle cells on a commercial scale.
In the United States, Berkeley-based start-up Memphis Meats closed their Series A funding round after raising $17 million in 2017, thanks to the help of investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
One competition that went viral is between Impossible Foods, which made Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, and Beyond Meat, which teamed up with McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. These two brands cropping up across the market and partnering with two of America’s most popular fast-food chains definitely piqued consumers’ interest and generated a massive phenomenon. People started to take part in blind-test challenges between these veggie burgers and the real ones and, to the surprise of many, the difference wasn’t that obvious. When the reviews came in, customers said that they could use both these burgers as substitutes for ground meat any recipe and that the taste came surprisingly close to real beef.
The burger made by Impossible Foods is now available in more than 5,000 restaurants across the US (Burger King, Red Robin, Qdoba among them) and, starting September 2019, the raw version even hit select grocery stores. Meanwhile, Beyond Meat, which also sells plant-based sausages, sells its burgers in grocery stores, as well as restaurants such as Carls Jr and TGI Fridays. When Winston Churchill imagined the future in 1931 and said that humans would learn how to make lab-grown meat in 50 years, his vision sounded preposterous. He may have been off by a few years, but now we do know that we can culture meat – the question remains how to cut production costs and make this healthier alternative appealing to the public.
Although it may take a few years, perhaps even decades, until meat lovers are convinced to switch to cultured and plant-based meat, the latest innovations in lab-grown meat production could amplify the existing interest in ethical alternatives and redefine the meat industry.
For now, plant-based meat replacements seem like a viable alternative, a market that continues to grow massively year after year. Cultured meat seems a bit farther off. It may revolutionize the meat industry, but it will take a few years or more.