Learn more about the future of food
by Melita Brainta
As the world’s population is anticipated to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, it is impossible to continue consuming meat like we do today. But is there a more humane and environmentally benign way to get our protein fix? Scientists believe that lab-grown meat could be a promising solution to the world’s looming protein shortage, and they are expected to be on sale by the end of 2018.1
You might have heard of it by its one of many other names: cultured meat, in vitro meat, clean meat, or synthetic meat. Lab-grown meat is meat grown in a controlled environment – like a beer brewery – from stem cells painlessly harvested via biopsy from an animal (there are even stem cells at the root of a detached feather)2 which are then grown in a lab over a number of weeks.1 It is produced using many of the same tissue engineering techniques traditionally used in regenerative medicine: stem cell isolation and identification, ex vivo cell cultures, and tissue engineering.3
Here is what it took to produce the first cultured burger:4
Muscle tissue was first harvested from a living cow in a small and harmless procedure. The muscle cells were cut into miniscule pieces to separate the muscle tissue from fat cells. Muscle tissue contains myosatellite cells, which have stem cell-like abilities.
- Cell culturing
To culture the cells, each myosatellite cell was placed in a petri dish that contained a suitable nutrient solution supplemented with fetal bovine serum. The cells started dividing. After three weeks, each myosatellite cell has produced several billion additional cells. Scientists then placed the cells in a nutrient-poor growth medium to starve the cells, forcing them to differentiate into fully developed muscle cells called myocytes. After enough time, the muscle cells will naturally merge to form so called myotubes, a developing muscle strand no longer than 0.3 mm.
- Tissue engineering
The muscle cells’ natural tendency to contract allows them to grow into a small piece of muscle tissue. Several myotubes were placed around a central hub of gel in a new petri dish. After a few more weeks, the myotubes align and link together to form a long bundle of skeletal muscle fibers. The muscle tissue was then removed from its gel hub, sliced open and flattened to from a single straight strand. Around 10,000 little pieces of muscle were finally layered together to form the meat patty. Saffron and beetroot juice were then added to imitate the color of beef.
Better for you
Professor Mark Post of the University of Maastricht believes that test tube meat will be better for us as we are able to gain greater control over what the meat consists of, such as its fat content.5 Saturated fat, which heightens the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad’ cholesterols and hence increases the risk of heart disease or stroke, might be removed or remarkably reduced from cultured meat and replaced by healthier omega-3 fatty acids. Lab-grown meat can also be made completely free of a harmful substance called heme iron, which occurs naturally in conventional meat and has been shown to damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer.6
Clean meat does not require growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics which commercial feedlots give to food-producing animals. The use of antibiotics in livestock has been identified as a source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose a great threat to our health, while the adverse effects of growth-promoting hormones in humans include “developmental, neurobiological, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects.” Clean meat is also free of pathogens because it is produced in a sterile environment, making it a a safer product for consumers.
Unfortunately, potentially carcinogenic compounds like nitrites and nitrates, heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) would be harder to get rid of. However, Post admits that he is not even sure he “would want to change that”. The reason? Nitrites and nitrates are utilized as preservatives in processed meats and are also used to avert oxidation in products like sausages so that they do not lose their distinctly attractive color. Plus, because lab-grown meats are sterile, much less nitrate is required to stay safe to eat. Meanwhile, HAA and PAHs are the products of the Maillard reaction – the chemical reactions between amino acids and carbohydrates in a slightly moist, hot environment that makes food more enticing to us humans. “Maillard reactions are very important,” says Paul Breslin, a nutritional sciences professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They are the flavour of cooking and give baked cookies, fresh-baked bread and grilled ribs their characteristic flavors, which we obviously love”.5
Better for the environment
At current rates, production of meat and seafood around the world will double to 1.2 trillion pounds by 2050.8 Our planet cannot afford to supply fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and water that industrialized livestock production requires. It cannot afford the loss of biodiversity or the polluted water. An approximate 14.5 per cent of the Earth’s global warming emissions stem from animal agriculture – more than from the entire transport sector.1 in vitro meat, on the other hand, would involve between 7 to 45 per cent less energy use, 99 per cent lower land use, 78 to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, and 82 to 96 per cent lower water use in comparison to the same volume of conventionally-produced meat.7 Using animal cells that regenerate themselves in large steel tanks would also mean that we will be able to eat meat without hurting billions of animals in the process.
Aside from the predicted environmental advantages, lab-grown meat could also provide cheap nutrition and help feed the world, allowing millions of people in rapidly developing economies such as India and China to be able to afford more meats in their diets.
Melita Brainta is currently a student majoring in Food and Nutritional Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.