Scientists and businesses working full steam to produce lab-created meat claim it will be healthier than conventional meat and more environmentally friendly.
Four months ago, the American company Memphis Meats fried the first-ever lab meatball.
The Dutch and the Americans claim that within a few years lab-produced meats will start appearing in supermarkets and restaurants.
These are not the only teams working on cultured meat.
For some people there’s an ick factor to the idea of lab-grown meat, but its backers say that cultured meat may help alleviate the environmental and health challenges posed by the world’s growing appetite for conventional meats.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the demand for meat in North America will increase by 8 percent between 2011 and 2020, in Europe by 7 percent and in Asia by 56 percent.
A 2011 study calculated that growing meat in labs would cut down on the land required to produce steaks, sausages and bacon by 99 percent and reduce the associated need for water by 90 percent.
What’s more, it found that a pound of lab-created meat would produce much less polluting greenhouse-gas emissions than is produced by cows and pigs, even poultry.
A 2015 life-cycle analysis of potential cultured meat production in the United States painted a less rosy picture if one includes the generation of electricity and heat required to grow the cells in a lab.
“It’s really too soon to say what the environmental impacts of the first cultured meat products will be,” says the lead author of that analysis, Carolyn Mattick, an environmental engineer at Arizona State University.
“However, new technologies often come with trade-offs. Take automobiles, for example. They provided huge advantages over horses in the early 1900s, but all of the cars on the road today cumulatively emit a lot of carbon dioxide. That is not to say we should give up our cars or stop researching cultured meat, but rather that we should be prepared to manage the downsides.”
In some aspects, researchers say, lab-grown meat might be better for us.
Because cultured meats would be produced in sterile environments, they would be free of such dangerous bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pathogens in conventional meat are the most common sources of fatal food-related infections.
Both Memphis Meats and the Dutch team, which is trying to make the production of cultured beef more efficient, said they do not use antibiotics in their products because the sterile lab process does not require them.
As for lab-grown meat and cancer, the story gets complicated.
Last October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, published a report that classified red meats as “Probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “Carcinogenic to humans.” And the head of the IARC suggested that people “Further support public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.” Yet scientists aren’t sure which elements of conventional meat are responsible for its potential carcinogenic effects.
Among them is heme iron, which is common in meat and is found almost exclusively in meat.
So here is the good news for lab-grown meat: According to its producers, lab-cultured beef or pork can be made completely free of heme iron.
“I think that removing heme iron from meat would make for a colon-safer product,” says Graham Colditz, a cancer researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who has no association with the groups producing lab meat.
Another thing that might be removed from cultured meat, or significantly reduced, is saturated fat, which raises the level of bad cholesterol, increasing risk of stroke or heart disease.
Among them are nitrites and nitrates, preservatives that are commonly used in processed meats such as ham and bacon.
Lab-grown sausages and hams, Post says, would be “Very similar to regular meat” because the compounds would still be needed to preserve the meat’s appearance.
Among other things that would stay in cultured meats are heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to affect HAA and PAHs in cultured meat,” admits Post, who says he isn’t even sure he would “Want to change that.” The reason? These substances are products of the Maillard reaction – the marriage between carbohydrates and amino acids in a slightly moist, hot environment that help give meat its enticing flavor.
That’s the catch: If we remove too much fat, the meat will lose juiciness and texture.
If we add too much of the omega-3 fatty acids, the meat may get a fishy flavor.
Lab-grown meat may be better for the environment and improve on several health aspects of conventional meat.
At least, it can’t be exactly like regular meat and have no potential health downsides whatsoever.
“We’re not there yet,” acknowledges Uma Valeti, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Memphis Meats, “But in just a few years, we expect to be selling protein-packed pork, beef and chicken that tastes identical to conventionally raised meat but that is cleaner, safer and all-around better than meat from animals grown on farms.”