Future of Food, Part II: Serving Up Meat, OVER Glass

Second in an occasional series.

Last month we covered “Foods of the Future” and highlighted some of the new developments in how our food is produced and prepared. Ranging from novel culinary techniques to 3D printing, a variety of innovative, new technologies are quickly surfacing.

This month, we peer into the glass petri dish and examine in vitro, or “lab-grown," meat.

As we previously mentioned, Millennials are especially interested in a hypothetical appliance that can turn raw ingredients into any meal, and how they’re are also looking forward to technologies that can make any food from scratch.

These particular data points are interesting, given the current state of protein production and technology—in particular, one technology that begins at the cellular level.

The process of making lab-grown meat starts with harvesting stem cells, which are a specific type of cell that can give rise to many other kinds of cells. After the stem cells are harvested, they are incubated in a nutrient-rich broth, where they are given time and space to divide and multiply.

During this time, the muscle cells merge together and structurally arrange themselves into small fibers. These fibers are then grown around a cylinder, forming a ring of tissue. The tissue then forms strands, which can have more than a trillion cells each. Many strands are used and layered together to produce a final product such as a burger patty.

But what about nutrition? This is where things become more interesting, in my opinion.

Non-lab or conventionally grown meat are rich sources of iron because of meat’s high myoglobin content, which soaks up iron found in the blood. Because lab meats lack a circulatory system and are kept in a high-oxygen environment, myoglobin levels are reduced and, thus, iron levels are low.

Another nutritional difference regarding lab meats centers on fat. Lab meats lack fat because culturing fat cells for consumption is not a straightforward process. However, being able to control the profile and types of fat—i.e., focusing on heart-healthy, unsaturated fat—would significantly up lab meat’s nutrition game.

It also would be an oversight not to cover other related topics such as environmental impact, cost, and sustainability.

A study assessing the environmental impacts of cultured meat production found that “the overall environmental impacts of cultured meat production are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat.”

Supporters and founders of lab-meat companies are not surprised by these findings. In a recent interview with Gizmodo, Shier Friedman, co-founder of Modern Agriculture Foundation, has said that “with cultured meat, you grow exactly what you want, and you barely throw anything away.”

Food waste is a topic that is gaining popularity and interest. According to FutureFood2050, one-third to one-half of the food produced for human consumption in the world is never eaten, which equates to about 1.3 billion metric tons of food waste per year.

About 795 million people in the world—one in nine of us—do not have enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle, according to the World Food Program. These sobering statistics suggest that lab meats could be part of the equation for reducing food waste, while delivering nutritious food to those who otherwise would not have access to or the means to afford them.

Nearly three years ago, the world’s first lab-grown burger made its grand debut. This patty was the result of turning a handful of cow shoulder stem cells into nearly 20,000 muscle fibers in just three months. Although it sounds relatively simple, the process was quite arduous and expensive: The patty came with a $325,000 price tag!

While the cost of lab-grown meat has significantly decreased in the past three years, the current cost is about $80 per kilogram, which is still about 10 times as high as conventionally grown beef.

Although best known as a statesman, Winston Churchill had remarkable foresight into this particular topic. He predicted that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Though not a step-by-step guide, Churchill’s vision was pretty darn close as we look to the future and see extensions of this technology to include chicken and pork.

These technologies mean that someday, a well-known commercial tagline could be updated: “Lab-grown meat: It’s what’s for dinner.”