Earlier this month two people got to taste a unique hamburger. The burger was made from the first in vitro, or lab-grown, beef which was produced by Dutch researchers. The burger didn’t get rave reviews, but that wasn’t the point.
The taste test was a chance for the researchers to show that it was possible to create beef in the laboratory. You won’t get a chance to try one for some time.
Mass production is still years away and getting to this point has already cost more than $300,000 – probably the most expensive burger ever!
The beef was created from cow stem cells which were grown into meat using a specialized nutrient mixture. The result is almost pure protein (muscle) and no fat.
Since it had no blood supply the meat didn’t look much like beef, so the researchers added beet juice for color. The lack of fat was noted by the tasters, a journalist and a food scientist.
Even though the taste wasn’t quite right according to the testers, the big hurdle was making the beef and the researchers have said that adding flavor is much easier.
One interesting note: while the beef was growing in the lab the researchers stimulated it electrically to make it contract. That’s right, they made it exercise. It seems that contraction is important for muscle development. This isn’t a surprise, considering that many people believe that the best meat comes from “free range” animals that move around.
There is great interest in growing cultured meat. Worldwide population growth means that demand for meat could become greater than the capacity to raise animals for slaughter.
The environmental costs of raising animals, both in terms of land use and pollution from wastes, is high and would increase with greater demand. From an animal welfare perspective, producing meat in the lab eliminates animal suffering.
There is another reason that lab-grown meat is desirable – health. Eating too much beef can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, at least in part due to the fat, especially saturated fat. The cultured beef is fat-free, reducing this potential health concern. Another quality of beef that is associated with health problems is heme iron from the blood that naturally feeds the muscle. Since the lab-created beef has no blood supply, this isn’t an issue.
The idea of eating test tube meat is troubling to some people because it isn’t natural. This is true, but keep in mind that “fake” foods such as imitation cheese and imitation crab meat are widely available now.
Take, for example, imitation cheese. If you read the ingredients you will find that the normal components of cheese (milk, cheese cultures, and enzymes) have been replaced by plant-based oils, artificial flavors and colors, and other ingredients to create a cheese-like texture. It may not have been grown in a lab, but it certainly isn’t real cheese.
This raises questions about how we eat now. Is it wise for us to consume more meat that can be produced naturally? Or should we find a more sustainable – and less sci-fi – way to feed ourselves?
If the idea of eating food created in a laboratory seems unnatural, shouldn’t we also take a close look at the other heavily processed foods we eat?
The availability of lab-grown meat is years away. In the meantime, keep in mind that eating beef and other meat can be part of a healthy diet, whether it came from a lab or an actual animal.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.
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