This post is part of The Raptor Lab’s Food Week. Read #jurassickitchen for more!
What’s even better than a juicy, delicious hamburger?
Why, a hamburger that you’ve grown artificially in the lab, of course.
Scientists around the world are currently competing to bring the world’s first-ever artificial meat to market. The results would look like meat, smell like meat, and taste like meat, but grown in a dish rather than — let’s say — harvested from a live animal.
Fake meat has a lot of nicknames, including in vitro meat, test tube meat, cultured meat, and shmeat. (That last one is my personal favorite.)
Developing commercial-ready shmeat would be a scientific feat, but the race isn’t just about showing off. Livestock currently produce nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. If you include the effort that goes into animal byproducts and the product supply chain, then the industry suddenly accounts for a whopping 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That means replacing most real meat with artificial meat could have a major impact on global warming. (Assuming, of course, that we decide to embrace the replacement.)
Netherlands physiologist Mark Post, whose lab leads the pack in efforts to produce fake meat, told reporters that shmeat “could reduce the energy expenditure by about 40 percent.”
Post’s lab works with cow stem cells. The cells are multiplied in warm broth in a dish to form tiny strips of skeletal muscle, thousands of which are laid together to form a single hunk of meat. Scientists then twitch the muscle using either proteins or electrical stimulation, causing the mass to become bulkier. Later, lab-grown animal fat is mixed in for texture and flavor. An article out of the Santa Cruz SciComm program last year described the state of Post’s lab-engineered creation:
I’ll let you decide for yourself whether this sounds like something you wanna ingest.
“As yet, there’s no mistaking the petri dish creation for a dinner dish. The burger strips possess a yellowish-pinkish hue, which Post hopes to fix by adjusting the cells’ biochemistry. And without a mix of lab-grown fat cells thrown in, the protein-rich strips would feel like squid meat.”
Another lab, led by molecular biologist Patrick Brown at Stanford, chooses to rely on plant materials to make their meat substitute. Brown, who also plans to use his method to manufacture dairy, is confident that his product will win over “the hardcore meat- and cheese-lovers who can’t imagine giving all this up.”
Test-tube meat is currently in the developmental stages, and the cost of creating a single serving is still far too expensive for common consumption. But the possibility looms closer. In a couple of weeks, Post will unveil his first cultured hamburger at a media event in London. Audience members will even be invited to try the shmeat, which Post says tastes “reasonably good.”
Speaking as a veteran vegetarian, shmeat is intriguing to me. However, I’m skeptical that it would ever break out as anything but a specialty item for the environmentally conscious or culinarily adventurous. You can already buy veggie burgers and tofu creations that are pretty damn delicious. In the past, I’ve had some meat substitutes that were eerily convincing.
If and when shmeat makes it out of the gate, scientists are going to have to work hard to overcome the natural ick factor for mainstream eaters. That’s to say nothing of the significant number of people who are uncomfortable eating genetically-modified fruits and vegetables — which, though scientifically altered, at least grow out of the dirt the old-fashioned way.
The first trick, I suppose, is to convince people that it’s just like the real thing.
“What are we going to call it?” Post said to reporters at a press conference last winter. “Well, we thought long and hard, and came to the conclusion we should simply call it meat.”