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Beyond Vegan: Lab-Grown Meat

If you haven’t already tried a meatless hamburger, chances are you will bite into one soon. Some 57% of American households have already taken the plunge and the number is growing fast.

The customers, by the way, aren’t all vegans. Industry research shows 98 percent of people who buy plant-based meat also purchase conventional meat.

Why meatless?

Various surveys point to two key motivators:  health concerns associated with over-consumption of animal fats and worries about the environmental impact of the huge carbon footprint and land use consumption required for animal farming.

Plant-based meat producers claim their food generates 90 percent fewer gas emissions than their cow-derived counterparts, and uses 46 percent less energy, 99 percent less water, and 93 percent less land.

There’s money in meatless

Meatless plant-based substitutes are a food market worth $7 billion in the U.S. today, up from $5.5 billion in 2019,  and rising 2.5% faster than total U.S. food sales from 2018-2020. That’s according to retail sales data released April 6, 2021, by SPINS, which calls itself the leading provider of data and insights for the natural organic and specialty products industry.

The companies in this meatless field are themselves proving to be valuable: as of February 21, 2021, Beyond Meat, a leading company producing alternative protein products such as plant-based meat, had an estimated market value of $9 Billion.

But meat substitutes aren’t confined to vegetables. Some 20,000 species of edible insects are also being used as meat substitutes: insect advocates say mealworms are clean, odorless, and rich in minerals and vitamins, while crickets and grasshoppers are loaded with protein.

Barclays Bank Plc predicts annual worldwide sales of edible bugs will grow to $8 billion by 2030, from less than $1 billion in 2019 — a potential challenge to the plant-based faux-meat market. Taken together, the global market value of meat substitutes is expected to grow to over $35 billion by 2027.

Home, home in the lab

And now…make way for a new entrant into this fast-growing field: real meat. Not just red meat but chicken as well. Not grown on the land but in a lab, from cells extracted from living animals: fat, muscle, and other tissues to be used in the final product.

As an example, consider this process used by GOOD MEAT: the extracted starter cells grow and divide in a laboratory (in a bioreactor) where they are bathed with the same nutrients an animal would eat, such as vitamins, fats, and amino acids. This harvesting process takes about 4-5 weeks.

But consumers are not likely to buy blobs of harvested cells. The grown meat end product has to look aesthetically pleasing – like the real meat you now buy in the supermarket. That entails using technology – 3-D printing to build the cultivated cells into more familiar meat shapes. The cells can also be grown on a natural scaffolding, so they develop into the desired shape and texture.

Molding and extrusion cooking using different temperatures and degrees of pressure create the fibrous texture we associate with meat. The lab-grown meat is then ready for you to cook and eat at home.

High in nutrition, low in waste

The producers claim lab-grown meat has the same nutritional profile as real meat, but without the hormones and chemical additives of industrialized farming. Controlled production – you grow only what you need – limits waste, while the cells can be kept indefinitely in a cell bank for future production.

And since there are no animals to tend and feed, raise and slaughter, there is much less impact on the planet, and improved animal welfare.

Who’s growing meat?

Companies and researchers are piling into cell-cultured meat:

  • The first steak cultured from cells was produced in December 2018 by an Israeli company, Aleph Farms, though the company said at the time that the taste needed more work.
  • Another Israeli company, MeaTech3D, in December 2021 produced what is considered to be the largest lab-grown steak yet produced, weighing in at nearly 4 ounces and composed of real muscle and fat cells, derived from tissue samples taken from a cow.
  • In November, Redefine Meat presented its 3D-printed plant-based steak in London to an invited group of tasters, including a journalist from The Guardian, who described its mimicry of real meat as “extraordinary.”
  • And scientists at the University of Lisbon in Portugal announced in December a Good Food Institute-funded plan to make sea bass fillets from 3D-printed cells on edible scaffolds using ingredients from algae for the cells to grow on.
  • At the end of 2020, chicken nuggets made by U.S. company Eat Just were served to customers in Singapore.

Getting there

That last move – selling lab-grown animal food to human customers — required regulatory approval, one of the speedbumps along the road to public market development for lab-grown meat. Another is the large amount of energy required for lab meat production.

Government investment in technology and research and commercialization could speed things along, but you won’t be finding lab-grown meat in your supermarket for a few years yet.

Meanwhile, companies are making market forays in other ways. MeaTech3D, for example, say they will venture into the market by selling the cultured fat from their lab meat as an ingredient for other products, while working on a pilot plant planned for 2022.

It’s a whole new meaning to the classic advertising slogan, “Where’s the beef?” 

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