Lab-Grown Meat: Exploring Potential Benefits and Challenges of Cellular Agriculture

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Is cultured meat the future of food or a science experiment gone wrong? Also known as in vitro meat, cellular agriculture, artificial meat or synthetic meat, cultured meat means growing muscle tissue from animal stem cells in a lab rather than harvesting from livestock.

Creating cultured meat requires adding a collagen matrix (taken from either living or deceased animals) to adult muscle stem cells from a live animal, which together proliferate into strips of skeletal muscle grown in a lab. Fat cells need to be co-cultured to replicate the flavor of natural meat and to enhance texture and tenderness. Growing cultured meat also requires a circulatory system to deliver oxygen and nutrients and to remove metabolic waste.

Although the technique of generating muscle tissue in vitro has been possible for more than 100 years, it only recently has been developed for commercial purposes. In 2013, after five years of research, Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands introduced the first burger made from bovine stem cells. This prototype burger cost more than $300,000 to make and involved combining more than 10,000 individual strips of muscle fiber to make a product consumers would recognize.

A Closer Look at Cost

Although making the first burger required a significant amount of time and money, cultured meat eventually could be more cost-effective than traditional meat farming practices. In vitro growth takes several weeks before meat can be harvested, rather than weeks or months for chickens or years for pigs or cows. In addition, cultured meat can be stored in the facility where it is grown, reducing the need for land, labor and feed to raise animals. Further, it could create a new, profitable industry. However, more research is needed to develop the technology and make it accessible to large populations.

If developing cultured meat on a large scale were successful, farming and agriculture as we know it would undergo significant changes. Researchers hypothesize that cultured meat could lead to monumental changes in meat production, perhaps replacing factory farming or increasing demand for small-scale farming. The livestock sector is the fastest growing subsector of agriculture and employs 1.3 billion people. Although cultured meat would create a new profitable industry of its own, it could greatly affect traditional livestock farming.

Global meat production has more than doubled since 1970, and researchers estimate cultured meat could reduce both greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production and deforestation of grazing land. Researchers comparing the production of cultured and conventional meat found that producing 1,000 kilograms of cultured meat involves approximately 7 percent to 45 percent lower energy use, 78 percent to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent lower land use and 82 percent to 96 percent lower water use.

Researchers suggest developing this technology could aid in protecting some endangered species because cells from captive rare species could be used to produce exotic meats, minimizing the global trade of meat from these animals.

Potential Impact on Health

Cultured meat can be engineered to have an impact on specific health and nutrition outcomes by altering the profile of essential amino acids and fat in addition to adding vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds that match or exceed the amount in natural meat. For example, cultured meat could be grown to contain more protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids than traditional meat, as well as decreased or eliminated saturated fat, potentially reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

Because cultured meat production could be less expensive than traditional farming, and therefore more accessible, it could increase access to meat in developing countries. If so, cultured meat could reduce or alleviate some nutritional deficiencies in these populations and support the physical and mental development of children.

Controlled conditions used in growing cultured meat could improve food safety by minimizing animal-borne diseases and pathogens, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. In vitro meat also could reduce diseases associated with livestock farming that humans can contract, including avian and swine flus and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Scientists also hope that growing cultured meat could reduce the need for pesticides, fungicides, heavy metals, aflatoxins, melamine, anabolic agents and antibiotics used for some large-scale traditional meat production.

A Case For No Cultured Meat

Ethical treatment of animals is a concern because stem cells need to be collected from an original animal source — living or not — and engineering meat does not entirely eliminate animal suffering. Even if the animal from which stem cells are taken is alive, retrieving the correct type of muscle tissue will involve an invasive technique. Serum to aid and grow cell cultures have to be taken from adult animals, newborns or fetal sources as standard supplements for cell cultures, which raises ethical concerns. In the future, this substrate could be replaced with plant sources, such as from mushrooms or other cultured products. Some people, such as vegans and members of certain religious groups, feel any exploitation of animals is not necessary for human health, so these issues could ultimately prove to be a barrier. It is unclear how cultured meat may be considered under religious dietary laws, such as halal.

Consumers currently and may continue to choose plant-based meat substitutes for many reasons, ranging from ethics and environmental concerns to taste and texture preference. Meat analogs made from soy, wheat gluten and other grain proteins, legume and mycoprotein are cholesterol-free, have a meat-like texture and can be lower in cost than real meat. Further, these alternatives are accepted as halal foods and can be kosher, depending on processing.

Low consumer acceptability is a major concern for researchers developing cultured meat. Researchers from the College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University state that in order to be widely adopted from a cultural standpoint, engineered meat will need to be similar or superior to natural meat in color, aroma, flavor, texture and tenderness. Some experts indicate that most people who don’t support cultured meat doubt the product could be appetizing. Additionally, natural products are a growing consumer desire and creating a cultured meat product distinctly moves away from this trend.

The Future of Cultured Meat

Some researchers predict that without new ways to make meat accessible to the general population, such as cultured meat products, meat will become an expensive luxury food not available to all people.

Cultured meat is not yet available to consumers, but researchers estimate it likely will be in about 10 to 20 years. Understanding the way cultured meat is grown and that it could match or exceed the nutrient profile of natural meat could help increase acceptability. Ultimately it will be up to consumers to decide if they support this future food trend.

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Ginger Hultin
Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN is the owner of the private practices, Champagne Nutrition, and Seattle Cancer Nutritionist in Seattle, WA. She specializes in integrative health and oncology, nutrigenomics, and plant-based diets. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.