Lab-grown meat is stepping out of the lab.
The promising alternative to both traditional meat and plant-based substitutes, in-vitro meat first burst onto the scene in 2013 when researcher Mark Post held a tasting session for the world’s first burger of its kind at a television studio in London. Six years later, the technology is maturing. It now looks set to arrive in consumers’ mouths as early as 2021.
Unlike Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat which use plants to try and recreate the taste of meat, lab-grown meat takes a slightly different approach. It takes the stem cells from an animal and places them in a bioreactor, encouraging the growth of more cells that can be used to create a new cut of meat.
The idea caused a stir last week when the Wall Street Journal reported on something altogether more exotic — lab-grown kangaroo. The technology enables scientists to grow all manner of stem cells in a lab, meaning designers could create a wide variety of meats.
Far from the typical chicken or beef spotted in news reports, lab-grown meat has the potential to expand far wider. This scope for innovation is part of the reason why consultancy firm AT Kearney declared in June that cultured meat could take 35 percent of the market by 2040, versus 25 percent for plant-based meat and 40 percent for traditional meat.
“Future of cultured meat? Bright,” American food critic Josh Schonwald, one of the few to eat Post’s burger in 2013, told Inverse last month. “I think the incredible success of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat suggest that cultured meat has great potential.”
Here are the six most fascinating dishes set for the lab.
Pork, beef, chicken…lab-grown meat may be able to produce familiar foodstuffs in a more eco-friendly format, but what about something a bit more exotic?
Sydney-based startup VOW managed to produce a few grams of kangaroo meat over the course of four weeks. It’s not particularly notable in Australia, where the meat is both available in supermarkets and somewhat ignored by the population, but it demonstrates the potential for the technology to produce all manner of meats.
“This is, as far as we know, the first time someone’s gone from an undomesticated land animal to cultivated meat,” George Peppou, the 28-year-old co-founder of VOW, told the Wall Street Journal last week.
It’s still early days for kangaroo. The first batch, produced with AU$50,000 ($33,951) of the co-founders’ money and AU$25,000 ($16,975) from the state government, was made using rented lab space in a private school. The firm estimates that it costs around AU$2,000 ($1,358) to produce each kilogram of the meat, which uses fetal bovine serum to stimulate cell growth. Regular kangaroo meat, by comparison, costs around AU$10.50 ($7.13) per kilogram in the supermarket.
For now, nobody has tried the mince-like kangaroo beef. It’s been wrapped in a steamed dumpling with green onion, cilantro and ginger. The firm is waiting for local regulatory approval before trying the dish.
Kangaroo may be just the beginning. Tim Noakesmith, the 24-year-old that also co-founded VOW, noted that the technology could be used to one day offer “Galapagos tortoise burger, but without any Galapagos tortoises needing to be harmed.”
Researchers at the University of Bath in southern England have been exploring the potential to create bacon from pig cells. The team explained in March 2019 how it’s using blades of grass to grow the in-vitro cells.
The main sticking point is the texture. Current growth technologies produce meat best suited to burgers or sausages. Improving on this with more complex structures could pave the way for concepts like steak and bacon rashers.
“The pig’s still alive and happy and you get lots of bacon at the end,” Nick Shorten, a postgraduate student at Aberystwyth University, told the BBC.
5. Ice Cream
Unlike other forms of lab-grown food, dairy products don’t require any animal cells to encourage growth.
Firms like New Culture and Perfect Dayare looking at ways to make lab-grown dairy. The setup uses genetically-modified yeast microbes to produce the whey and casein proteins found in dairy. Fed with nutrients and a suitable temperature, the organism grows and develops the proteins necessary to create a product that tastes just like real ice cream.
“We’ve had really positive results,” Inja Radman, a founder of New Culture, told the New York Times.
Perfect Day has made big progress, mixing its proteins with fat, calcium and carbohydrates to complete an ice cream. The flavors of vanilla, salted fudge, chocolate and vanilla blackberry toffee went on sale in July, quickly selling out.
Another one of the trickier meats to tackle, steak’s complex textures mean it’s not as simple as lab-grown burgers.
Israel-based Aleph Farms has high hopes for the future. It’s creating four petri dishes of tissue to build back the flavor: muscle cells, fat cells, blood vessel cells, and connective tissue cells. They’re then put together into a shape that most closely resembles the original. Aleph Farms is speaking with restaurants in Europe, Asia and the United States about a 2021 launch.
“Imagine the same steak, the same experience, same taste, same texture, but produced in a way which is more ethical, more sustainable and without all the public health issues associated with animal farming,” Aleph Farms’ co-founder and CEO, Didier Toubia, told RTÉ.
3. Foie Gras
The liver of a fattened goose or duck seems an unlikely first target for lab meat, but Japan-based IntegriCulture is taking up the challenge.
The team is using an array of machines to recreate a liver and grow the cells. The machine “pseudo-liver” connects with other blood vessels to reproduce the internal processes and encourage those cell interactions that make foie gras delicious.
“I have no idea when we will realize this, but the key is how we will be able to increase the system in size and improve its efficiency,” Yuki Hanyu, the co-founder and CEO of IntegriCulture, told Kyodo News. The firm has a target deadline of reaching restaurants by 2021 and consumers by 2023.
Seafood consumption has doubled globally over the past 50 years to reach 44 pounds per person per annum in 2014. However, fish has proven a notoriously complex meat for plant-based food firms, which have tried to recreate its complex tastes with little success. Lab-grown alternatives could offer a solution.
Startups like Finless Foods, BlueNalu and Wild Type are all pushing for fishless fish. In the case of BlueNalu, the team extracts muscle cells from one fish, mixes it with a liquid blend of vitamins, amino acids and sugar, and uses that to produce the meat.
“This is not a fad or a trend — this is happening,” Lou Cooperhouse, BlueNalu’s founder, told NPR. “We will produce real seafood products directly from fish cells.”
Others are thinking bigger. Singapore-based Shiok Meats is planning to produce shrimp, lobster, and crab, bringing crustaceans to the dinner table.
Some of the earliest proponents of lab-grown meat are excited about the idea. Austrian researcher Hanni Rützler, one of the first to eat a lab-grown burger, told Inverse last month that she would “love” to try lab-grown fish, adding that she may have the chance to in California next year.
1. A Mix of Everything
Perhaps one of the most intriguing possibilities for lab-grown meat is the potential to create all-new kinds of foodstuffs. IntegriCulture’s website images how people could create a beef, chicken and lobster steak to create an all-new dish:
It really is a brave new world of food.