Lab-grown meat has made new progress and is starting to resemble “natural” meat more and more.
This is confirmed in a study of Tufts University Boston published in the scientific journal Metabolic Engineering.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured meat is made up of muscle cells – or, depending on the technique, stem cells – taken from animals (cows, pigs and turkeys, in particular). Which are then multiplied into large quantities, using highly-sophisticated techniques, inside special machines called bioreactors until a kind of steak is formed. Its shape and consistency differ slightly from butcher’s meat, and even its colour actually appears different: it is more like a brownish-grey, due to the absence of blood.
Furthermore, beyond its aesthetic problems, lab-grown meat is made from authentic biological cells (it is not a product of chemical synthesis, nor is it so-called vegan meat obtained with vegetable fibres).
According to the experts, it could soon be a valid alternative to classic meat, even if some may find it strange to eat a steak like this.
Despite all of this, there are many research institutes and companies worldwide, that are working on the clean meat project – as cultured meat has also been called – with potentially high-value results in terms of environmental protection and animal wellbeing.
In fact, to obtain cultured meat, pigs, cows or turkeys are not killed, and a paltry amount of water is needed compared to industrial animal farming. In addition, this system would make it possible to save enormous quantities of plants and vegetables used to feed animals, which are then slaughtered for their meat. And that is not all: cultured meat does not contain any substances that can make traditional meat harmful, such as antibiotics, hormones and pesticides.
So, that is all great, isn’t it?
No, because the creation of this kind of meat, up until a short time ago, was very costly (the first “cultured” hamburger presented by the Maastricht University in the Netherlands in 2013 cost a good 250,000 euros) and prices have dropped only recently, reaching values closer to those of farmed meat, but still completely unable to compete in the market. At least, for now. We are talking 500 euros for a 140g hamburger, even if some entrepreneurs foresee a further decrease to 50 euros, or even less.
In the USA, in particular, they are creating factories to produce cultured meat on a large-scale and this will certainly help to reduce the final cost.
However, the problem of consistency and organoleptic properties still exists. Since cultured meat is made only of muscle cells without the other typical components of the traditional “product” (thin layers of fat, collagen, elastin, and others), it tends to be too dry and compact.
Numerous attempts are being made to achieve a “structure” that allows the muscle cells to grow in the laboratory and take on a three-dimensional shape similar to that of traditional meat and also to improve its taste. Many companies are fighting with each other over patents, in an attempt to achieve the most pleasant product (to find out more click here).
Within the context of this competition, the bioengineers from Tufts University have tried to also give cultured meat a higher quality nutritional value, thanks to the addition of substances adapted to specific groups of people, or benefits for everyone.
They have managed to achieve what has been called Golden Meat, reminiscent of what was done many years ago with genetically-modified rice to incorporate vitamin A – Golden Rice. In particular, as reported in the journal Metabolic Engineering, they have added vegetable genes to the cells of the beef that regulate the production of beta carotenoids (phytoene, lycopene and beta carotene), the precursors of vitamin A found in carrots and tomatoes, among others. This “addition” – according to the researchers – has not modified the cell structure, but at the same time gives the cultured meat considerable antioxidant properties.
Studies like this obviously also lead to many ethical problems: how right is it to genetically-modify an animal cell? And what repercussions can these changes have on the human body?
We will only know in the following months/years if this avenue, in which the world is investing huge resources, is really feasible, and how it will be received by the general public.