What makes a steak appealing? Is it the crispiness of the outside textures contrasted with the tenderness of the inner sections, or is it the aromas that waft up our noses? Across a variety of cuts and sources, meat is a food staple that is widely enjoyed and sought after. We see it every day in the supermarket aisles, in our refrigerators at home, and on our plates when we eat out. What is hidden from us is the brutality that goes into the production of it and the sheer quantity of resources we waste on keeping livestock that emit vast quantities of carbon. That is why teams of scientists around the world have been trying to find solutions to our carnivorous desires.
A pertinent part of the issue with meat is that most people have some idea of the issues at hand but choose to ignore them in order to maintain their peace of mind or their current lifestyle. Vegetarianism has not been overwhelmingly adopted simply because of the fact that there are few suitable alternatives. Current options toted as ‘replacements’ for meat such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are often poor substitutes. While the Impossible Burger received a lot of attention for ‘bleeding’ and releasing an iron-based protein known as heme that gives meat its taste and texture, the actual reality did not live up to the scientific expectations that people had for it. This is because the textures and tastes are still slightly different, and applications are more-or-less limited to minced versions.
One recent trend has been the growth of lab-based meat solutions, also known as the cultured meat industry. The first artificially grown beef burger was developed in 2013 by Mark Post, taking 2 years to come to fruition. Many of these forms of ‘meat’ rely upon the use of animal stem cells to grow the produce. While most animal cells are specialised and therefore perform specific functions only, stem cells are unique in being able to grow into many different types of cells. This trait is particularly useful when scientists are trying to mimic meat, which has many different components and textures.
How exactly is this meat grown? The first step is to isolate stem cells from the body, which is done through flow cytometry, which uses light to scan and analyse cells. Second, the cell is grown within an optimised environment to multiply out. Scientists are currently using a mixture of sugars, amino acids, and animal blood. Most of the growth comes through mitosis, in which the cell’s DNA replicates and divides, producing two identical daughter cells. Third, the muscle cells, also known as myofibers, start to clump together due to perimysium that ties them into bundles called fascicles. Because of the fast rate of growth and the longevity of cells, one synthetic meat company called Mosa Meats claims that 80,000 burgers can be created from one sample of stem cells. This presents a more economical solution to producing meat, since the number of cows needed to fuel meat drastically declines.
An issue with the cultivation of these meats is that they are often ‘mush’ as Knvul Sheikh writes in the New York Times. In order to ameliorate the situation, researchers have built gelatin scaffolding that replicates the way animal muscles are built, or use 3-D printers to structure their products. These methods give the meat a better texture and better taste than meat-free alternatives. They also open up new types of meat being produced, such as artificial foie gras or salmon.
There may be health benefits that are unique to lab-grown meat. Mark Post emphasised that “stem cells are, in principle, capable of making omega-3 fatty acids” which could replace the heme protein in red meat that has been linked to cancer, leading to a healthier hamburger. Moreover, there is no need to use hormones or chemicals to grow these cells, meaning that consumers can avoid the health issues related to estradiol-17ß, a growth hormone used in the US, which has been linked as a ‘direct carcinogen’. Consequently, synthetic meats have the potential to be healthier than real meats because they can be manufactured to contain better nutrients and do not require harmful chemicals to be viable on a commercial scale.
While these developments are an exciting start to the new industry, it is important to note that they are still mere shadows of the real meat experience. Cultured products are limited by their taste and are prohibitively expensive to produce, seeing as the first lab burger cost over $300,000 to create, and current-day iterations still require $100 per kg to grow. As such, while Singapore has legalised the sale of artificial chicken nuggets, it is unlikely that we will regularly be eating lab-grown meat in the near future.