Vegetarians have long been familiar with meat substitutes — including “meat” patties made from soy or “crispy chicken” that is actually plant protein. But if you’re a carnivore, a steak is a steak, and it comes from a cow. Or does it?
These days, advancements in technology aren’t limited to just your smartphone or appliances. Food technology is a growing business, meaning lab-grown meat could be headed to your plate soon.
According to a December 2020 Bloomberg report, lab meat is getting closer to hitting supermarket shelves. But is lab-grown meat bad for you, and what does lab grown meat taste like?
Let’s dig in to these questions, as well as the potential pros and cons of the rise of artificial meat.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Traditionally, getting meat means breeding an animal, sending it to slaughter and then packaging up the meat to sell. So what is lab-grown meat made of?
Instead of raising live animals for their meat, to make artificial meat (also known as “slaughter-free meat,” “clean meat” or “cultured meat”), stem cells from an animal’s muscle tissue — known as a donor animal — are combined with a serum. The serum is usually derived from the fetuses of dead cows.
The cells are fed sugar and salts, tricking them into thinking they’re still in an animal — this way they grow.
Over time, the muscle stem cells begin transforming as they strengthen, expand and mature into muscle fibers. Eventually, when enough of these fibers combine, you have a piece of meat.
Fat tissue may then be added to give the meat a flavor more consistent with traditional meat. Then, it’s hello dinner.
Can vegetarians eat lab-grown meat? Because lab-grown meat still requires animal products, it’s not considered vegan or vegetarian-friendly.
For the time being, plant-based eaters still have to opt for soy, tofu and other meat substitutes.
One of the biggest benefits that people who work in food technology see about the prospects of lab-grown meat is that it’s better for the environment.
Here are some of the positive environmental impacts that artificial meat may have:
- Results in fewer slaughtered animals — There’d be less need to raise cows if lab meat became more popular, which could potentially cut back on greenhouse emissions.
- Less land and water usage — This would likely follow since fewer cows would need to be raised, and they’d require less food.
- More people can have access to meat — As the world’s population continues growing, farming enough animals to feed meat eaters will take its toll on the planet. Lab meat can be one option for feeding more people animal protein without depleting as many resources. Even today, only about 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian, so there’s big demand for meat. Lab-grown meat, advocates say, provides a solution to the meat scarcity problem and is better for the plant overall.
Potential Dangers and Concerns
There are several key issues regarding the production of artificial meat:
- Because lab-grown meat is in its infancy, it’s too early to say if the environmental advantages will definitely pan out.
- It’s very expensive to produce.
- The taste is not necessarily appealing to everyone.
- It’s still up for debate how it should be labeled and advertised to consumers.
- It’s not entirely known how healthy is it and how the nutritional content compares real beef and meat.
1. High Energy Usage
One issue is that energy usage to produce fake meat would likely skyrocket, as you’d have massive facilities that would require electricity 24/7. A large-scale study, where the entire life cycle of producing meat traditionally versus in a lab, would need to be done to measure the true effects.
As of December 2020, at least eight companies are building or operating pilot sites in hopes of upgrading from small-scale output to more energy-efficient and cost-effective full industrial output. This is expected to happen near the end of 2022, at the earliest, as there are still challenges related to production and cost to overcome.
2. High Cost to Produce
Singapore recently became the first country to allow the sale of cultured meat to the public. Yet this is still out of reach in many countries.
Currently, lab-grown meat costs are also too expensive to hit the market just yet. A lot of that is due to the serum that’s necessary for the stem cells to grow.
It should be noted, too, that an animal still needs to die in order to gain and grow those stem cells, which is a critical part of creating fake meat products. Synthetic, plant-based alternatives exist, but real animal serum is more attractive because nearly any cell can be grown with it.
Infamously, the first lab-grown burger, created in 2013, cost nearly $400,000 to produce. Until food technology advances and a better plant-based alternative is created, lab-grown meat for sale isn’t likely to happen anytime soon — and that means lab-grown meat products will be out of reach for the average consumer.
3. Issues Surrounding Labeling
Another question that’s up in the air when it comes to lab-grown meat is what it should be called and who should regulate it.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat and its production, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of food safety, dairy, produce and packaged foods, including imitation meat products. If lab-grown meat isn’t considered meat, technically it would fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction.
However, lab-grown meat advocates argue that their products are still meat — it’s just the processes used to create it differ from traditional production. Still others think that regulation should be a joint effort between the two federal agencies.
Even the cattle industry is split — some think lab-grown meat shouldn’t be allowed to be called meat, hopefully giving their products an edge among consumers at the grocery store. Cattle lobbying groups, however, hope that lab-grown meat is called meat, because the USDA has a history of protecting the agricultural industry.
For the average consumer, what entity regulates the meat isn’t as important as making sure that it is safely regulated and that it doesn’t pose health issues.
Speaking of labeling, it’s likely that to be a cause for concern among shoppers as well. While the market for meat substitutes is expected to reach $140 billion by 2030, that doesn’t mean that people necessarily want to buy meat without knowing that it was produced in a lab — just think of how we feel about products that contain GMOs.
4. Weary Consumers
Just because lab meat is available doesn’t mean people will necessarily purchase it. Though one study found that 40 percent of Americans and 60 percent of vegans would be willing to try clean meat, it will be interesting to see what happens when if it’s actually available in stores.
It might take off in, say, the U.S. and Europe, but it’s likely that clean meat will cause a radical change in the developing world, where livestock is used for more than just food and where the most demand for meat in the next few decades is likely to come from.
Finally, there’s perhaps the biggest issue of all: taste! Will lab-grown meat still taste like that juicy steak you love?
Plant-based meat alternatives get a pass when the taste isn’t quite up to par because, well, they’re made from plants. But if it looks like meat and calls itself meat, it should taste like meat.
Most reports have shown that the taste is comparable to real meat, but this may not be enough to convince consumers who are on the fence.
Food Technology Revolution
Similarly to the advances made in other areas of our lives, food is undergoing its own revolution. This isn’t a new idea: Louis Pasteur, famous for developing pasteurization in order to keep milk from spoiling and bacteria from growing back in the 1800s, was part of an earlier food revolution.
Today, that movement looks a bit different. Now we have vertical farming, Heal the Planet farms (by our very own Jordan Rubin!), hydroponics, regenerative agriculture, finding ways to keep more nutrients in foods and even refrigerators that alert us to when food might be going bad.
Meanwhile, lab-grown meat is one of the innovations that might change the way we eat in the future.
Should You Try It?
So what’s the verdict regarding lab-grown meat? Should you or shouldn’t you try it?
Chances are it’s not yet a widely available food in your local grocery store. Companies are still working on figuring out how to best create lab meat products that appeal to consumers and are cost-effective.
If you feel comfortable eating artificial meat that has been grown by cells and tastes similar to real meat, then in the future this may be a good option for you.
- Food technology is revolutionizing the way we eat, and lab-grown meat is on the horizon.
- Artificial meat uses animal stem cells from real animal muscle to grow meat in a lab.
- Clean meat enthusiasts say producing meat in this way will help reduce the amount of land, water and food necessary to feed cattle. Currently, however, the ingredients required for lab-grown meat still kill animals.
- Lab-grown meat is still too expensive to be mass produced, but it’s likely that will change in the next five years or so as viable alternatives to animal-based serums become available.
- There’s also confusion about whether lab meat will be labeled as such and who will be in charge of regulating this new food group.
- Ultimately, it’s likely that artificial meat will have more of an impact in places like the U.S. and Europe and not necessarily developing countries, where the need is probably greater for meat alternatives.