Vegetarians have long been familiar with meat substitutes — “meat” patties made from soy or “crispy chicken” that is actually plant protein.
But if you’re a carnivore, a steak is a steak, and it comes from a cow. Or does it? Food technology is a growing business and lab-grown meat is one of the innovations that might change the way we eat in the future.
Traditionally, getting meat means breeding the animal, sending it to slaughter and then packaging up the meat to sell.
Instead of using live animals, stem cells from an animal’s muscle tissue, known as a donor animal, are combined with a serum, which usually is derived from the fetuses of dead cows. The cells are fed sugar and salts; tricking them into thinking they’re still in an animal.
Over time, the muscle stem cells begin transforming, as they strengthen, expand and mature into muscle fibres.
Eventually, when enough of these fibres combine, you have a piece of meat. Fat tissue may then be added to give the meat a flavour more consistent with traditional meat.
One of the biggest benefits that people who work in food technology see about the prospects of lab-grown meat is that it’s better for the environment. There’d be less need to raise cows, which could potentially cut back on greenhouse emissions. Less land and water usage would likely follow as well, since fewer cows would need to be raised and they’d require less food.
As the world’s population continues growing, farming enough animals to feed meat eaters will take its toll on the planet. Lab-grown meat, advocates say, provides a solution, by allowing more meat to be produced without depleting as many resources.
Currently, lab-grown meat costs are also too expensive to hit the market just yet. A lot of that is due to the serum that’s necessary for the stem cells to grow. It should be noted, too, that an animal still needs to die in order to gain those stem cells. Synthetic, plant-based alternatives exist, but animal serum is more attractive because nearly any cell can be grown with it.
Another question is what it should be called and who should be regulating it. Lab-grown meat advocates argue that their products are still meat; it’s just the processes used to create it that differ from traditional production.
For the average consumer, what entity regulates the meat isn’t as important as making sure that it is safely regulated and that it doesn’t pose health issues.
One study found that 40 percent of Americans and 60 percent of vegans would be willing to try lab grown meat. It will be interesting to see what happens when if it’s actually available in stores.
It’s thought likely that this will cause a radical change in the developing world, where livestock is used for more than just food and where the most demand for meat in the next few decades is likely to come from.
Finally, there’s perhaps the biggest issue of all; taste! Will lab-grown meat still taste like that juicy steak you love? If it looks like meat, and calls itself meat, it should taste like meat!