As the demand for alternate sources of protein has increased in recent years, food manufacturers have created a wide array of plant-based meat substitutes of a quality that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Veggie burgers that actually taste like meat!
The next step is the development of a product known as lab-grown meat.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat (also known as clean meat or cultured meat) is actual meat that is produced by growing living cells in large vats similar to the ones beer is brewed in. The initial cells are taken from real animals, then immersed in a liquid growth medium, in which the cells divide, eventually growing into actual muscle tissue, aka meat.
The prospect of meeting a significant amount of the world's demand for meat without needing to raise and slaughter actual animals is obviously appealing for a variety of reasons.
Not only is growing meat without having to kill animals attractive morally, researchers say that lab-grown meat could be produced using just a fraction of the physical space needed for raising livestock, using far fewer resources, with a far lesser environmental impact, such as pollution of water and generating greenhouse gases.
Additionally, since there would be no animals to raise, there would be no need to use antibiotics and growth hormones, meaning that lab-grown meat would be healthier for consumers as well as better for the environment. And obviously with no live animals, there would be no need to feed and water them, thus freeing up even more resources.
Researchers also say the time required to produce a pound of cultured meat is much shorter than the time it takes to produce a pound of meat by raising live animals from birth.
And because lab-grown meat is made from actual animal cells, the meat that is grown is the actual meat of that species of animal: beef cells produce beef meat, chicken cells produce chicken meat and so on.
Downsides of Lab-Grown Meat
The biggest hurdle to the widespread acceptance of lab-grown meat is its cost. Several years ago, a scientist produced a burger made entirely from lab-grown meat, at a cost of over $300,000. While the costs have come down since then, a pound of lab-grown meat in 2019 still costs about $100.
Of course these costs are hypothetical, since there currently is no lab-grown meat available to the general public. Proponents point to a target price of $10 per burger as the point at which lab-grown meat would be a viable consumer product, and this is still a ways off. Until then, lab-grown meat only exists in labs.
What Does Lab-Grown Meat Taste Like?
Apart from a select few scientists and journalists, no one has tasted lab-grown meat. But the journalists who have tasted various prototypes have reported that the texture and consistency is exactly like real meat, but that where it falls short is in its flavor and juiciness.
That's because any piece of meat is made of not just muscle but also fat. And that means that in addition to being able to grow protein cells in a lab, manufacturers also need to be able to grow fat cells. And then combine the two into a product that more closely mimics the texture, consistency, juiciness and flavor of meat.
Moreover, in theory, anyway, it should be possible not only to grow cultured meat that is species specific, it out also to be possible to grow meat from a specific muscle, for instance beef rib and beef chuck; pork loin and pork belly; chicken breasts and thighs.
Cooking with Lab-Grown Meat
Assuming the scientists developing it are able to iron out the issue of fat content, cooking with lab-grown meat should replicate in every way the experience of cooking conventional meat. That is, the meat will turn brown through the Maillard reaction, and the proteins will firm up, shrink and expel liquid just as normal meat does.
Although it's worth noting that as prices for lab-grown meat will initially be high, it is likely that some of the earliest products will consist of some sort of hybrid product consisting of part lab-grown meat and part plant-based meat.
As such, there will likely be somewhat of a learning curve when it comes to cooking it. But of course the advantage is that by combining it with plant-based meat products, which have reached high levels of sophistication in terms of flavor and texture, it will be possible to produce an appetizing product from its very earliest days—which, as anyone who remembers the earliest days of veggie burgers knows, would indeed be good news.