Cultured Meat: What to Know

Cultured meat, sometimes called lab-grown, clean, or cultivated meat, is grown in a lab from a few animal cells. It's real meat, but it doesn't require animals to be slaughtered the way traditional meat does.

The idea is to create a more ecologically friendly and humane meat industry. Some industry experts think this process, called cellular agriculture, is the wave of the future. By the end of 2019, 55 companies worldwide were working on it.

But it's still early days for cultured meat. It's not clear yet just how healthy and cost-effective cultured meat will be, or whether it will taste good enough to entice people to buy it. It could be months or years before you see cultured meat on store shelves or in restaurants.

Making Cultured Meat

To make lab-grown meat, scientists take stem cells, the so-called building block cells, from an animal. They bathe the cells in a liquid containing nutrients to help them duplicate and put them into a bioreactor, a lab device for growing organisms.

Once the “unstructured” meat has developed, the next step is to make it a realistic meat product. Companies are trying to find the best way to produce burgers, nuggets, and other products from cultured meat. Some are using "scaffolding" made from soy protein, gelatin, or other sources to shape the lab-grown meat.

Depending on what kind of meat they're cultivating, this process should take 2 to 8 weeks.

What About Nutrition?

Meat consumption can play a role in chronic disease. But while scientists can adjust the amounts of fat and cholesterol in cultured meat, the science isn't clear about what impact lab-grown meat could have on nutrition.

Benefits of Cultured Meat

Some potential benefits of lab-grown meat include:

Less contamination. Advocates of cultured meat say it's much less likely to be infected by E. coli bacteria (which lives in animal poop) and other contaminants you might find in a meat processing plant.

Fewer antibiotics. Traditionally raised livestock are often given antibiotics to help keep them healthy. This can lead to antibiotic resistance, where the drugs don't work as well on infections as they once did.

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Less environmental impact. As global demand for meat goes up, more forested land is converted into ranches and crop fields. Cultured meat requires much less land, uses less water, and produces less pollution.

Also, traditional beef production makes lots of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Lab-grown meat could reduce these emissions significantly.

Kinder to animals. While cultured meat requires a small sample of tissue, it does not require an animal to be killed. The cells can be taken from a living animal. Some of the nutrient baths used to grow the cells contain blood from slaughtered animals, but others are vegetarian.

Concerns About Lab-Grown Meat

While cultured meat has a promising future, there are concerns, including:

It's not vegan. Since lab-grown meat contains animal cells, it’s not considered vegan. And many vegetarians are undecided on how they view this form of food.

In addition, many members of the Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish religions aren't sure whether cultured meat could comply with the dietary laws of their faiths.

Its price. Scientists made the first cultured meat hamburger in 2012. It cost $325,000 to create. But as technology advances, the cost of cultured meat should go down. One expert predicted that large-scale production could bring the cost of a 5-ounce burger to around $11 -- still expensive, but not ridiculously so.

Will people buy it? To some people, the idea of lab-grown meat just doesn’t sound appetizing. In a 2013 taste test, journalists gave the taste of cultured burgers mixed reviews. But research is going full-steam ahead, and public opinion is subject to change. So in many ways, the jury's still out.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 29, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Frontiers in Nutrition: ‘’The Myth of Cultured Meat: A Review.”

Good Food Institute: "New GFI State of the Industry Reports show alternative proteins are poised to flourish post-Covid-19,” “The science of cultivated meat.”

Goodwill Community Foundation: “What is lab-grown meat?”

Nature Food: "Cultured meat on a plant-based frame."  

The Harvard Gazette: "Real texture for lab-grown meat."

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