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What is cultivated meat? By now you’ve probably seen the headlines that “lab-grown meat is safe to eat” in the United States. If you’re not familiar with what it all means, this post is for you!
Looking back at the technological advancements throughout history is pretty amazing, isn’t it?
In one generation, we’re stringing tin cans together to talk to our neighbors. Eventually, we’re paying 25 cents to send a single text message while holding the phone straight up in the air hoping for 3 bars. Today we can’t shut off the constant social conversations.
Similar trends can be seen in food and nutrition. Yes, we’ve had a general understanding of the basic food groups for a long time. But the protein category has been transforming for a number of years with a more plant-based focus and is arguably on the verge of a huge shift.
Cultivated meat has been a food trend in the works for a while. Meanwhile, companies have faced plenty of obstacles along the way. The science of production, having a shot at reaching price parity with conventional meat, and increasing consumer awareness have all required trial and error.
Cultivated Meat is the Future
We’re excited about cultivated meat! I haven’t eaten meat in over ten years. And while I won’t personally eat lab-grown meat, I will absolutely recommend it to my omnivorous friends over its conventional counterparts.
Why? Cultivated meat is the future. It’s a healthier, more ethical, and more sustainable option for those who just aren’t keen on the idea of going plant-based.
The FDA just completed a comprehensive evaluation of cultivated chicken made by Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats), one of the OGs in the alternative protein category. They gave it the green light for safety here in the US.
This is an enormous step forward. The only other cultivated meat company to receive any type of regulatory approval thus far is California-based Eat Just. It’s best known for its mung-bean-based liquid eggs but also has a cultivated chicken side. Eat Just received the government go-ahead for its cultivated chicken in Singapore in 2020.
While there are still hurdles Upside Foods will need to surpass before we see its products in grocery stores, like formal approval from the USDA, now is a great time to educate yourself on what to expect.
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about cultivated meat.
What is Cultivated Meat?
Cultivated meat has been known by other names over the last few years, such as cell-based meat, lab-grown meat, cultured meat, and clean meat.
In fact, only recently did part of the world finally take a stance on what to call it. While we’ve been arguing about it in the States, countries in the Asian-Pacific region signed a memorandum of agreement to accept “cultivated meat” as the official terminology. So that’s what we’re going to call it for now, too.
Simply put, cultivated meat is real animal skeletal muscle and adipose tissue produced in a sterile, controlled setting by multiplying animal cells. It’s what naturally happens as an animal grows, but done in a lab.
Rather than slaughtering an animal, as has been the norm, animals are not killed in the process of creating it. Instead, cells are extracted from an animal and then multiplied in the lab.
This also means that instead of requiring crowded, contaminated factory farms to feed millions, cultivated meat requires significantly fewer animals – which has the potential to eventually make industrial animal agriculture as we know it obsolete.
Furthermore, many cultivated meat companies are experimenting with their ability to adjust the nutritional composition of meat.
For instance, potentially making meat that is lower in saturated fat and higher in certain vitamins and minerals. Some companies are even wondering if consumers would like things like fiber and probiotics added to these products. My thoughts on all of that another time.
How is Cultivated Meat Made?
Cultivated meat is made by replicating the natural process of cell growth in a controlled environment. Instead of calling it animal agriculture, this process is called cellular agriculture.
Here’s a basic step-by-step of how cultivated meat is produced:
- A sample of animal cells is collected from a healthy animal, like a cow, chicken, pig, lamb, or fish. The animal is not killed.
- While some extracted cells may be kept in a cell bank for future use, those that are ready to use are placed in a bioreactor designed to multiply and grow them. This is similar to the process of brewing beer.
- To make cells grow, they are provided food and water in the form of a nutrient-dense growth medium that contains vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats, signaling molecules, and energy. With nutrition and the help of structural scaffolding, they take on shapes, textures, and characteristics of the meat we’re used to seeing in stores today.
- After the cells grow and form to the desired extent, it’s time for harvesting. Once harvested, the cells are processed and packaged before sale. This may be in the form of ground beef, steak, burgers, nuggets, and more.
Currently, it takes approximately 1-2 months to produce a batch of cultivated meat from start to finish. Conventional meat takes many more months as it requires animals to continuously be born, quickly grown, and slaughtered.
The process will continue to speed up as it advances, and companies will be able to continue to scale the process to feed more people.
The History of Cultivated Meat
The first burger made with cultivated meat was cooked and eaten on live television by a scientist named Dr. Mark Post in 2013. Post later founded Mosa Meat, headquartered in the Netherlands.
What may be even more mind-blowing is that the technology behind cultivated meat is not new. The first patent for the process was filed in the late 1990s.
NASA (yes, that NASA) grew the first cultivated goldfish meat in a lab setting in 1998 while investigating innovative avenues for food production to fuel astronauts on prolonged voyages into space.
Of course, at the time this wasn’t deemed a viable option for the mass production of meat, but it sure sparked interest in the idea of alternative routes.
What Lab Grown Meat Companies Exist?
You may be surprised to learn just how many companies are working on producing cultivated meat. They’re producing everything from beef to fish and seafood, chicken and other poultry, bacon, and more.
Some of these companies include:
- Upside Foods
- Mosa Meat
- Aleph Farms
- MeaTech 3D
- Good Meat
- Finless Foods
- Believer Meats
- Higher Steaks
- New Age Meats
…and the list is growing with new cellular agriculture companies forming all over the world.
Is Lab Grown Meat Vegan?
Lab-grown meat is not the same thing as plant-based meat and it is not vegan.
Whereas plant-based meat is made entirely without animals or animal byproducts, instead using things like soy, pea, and vital wheat gluten, cultivated meat is real animal meat made with real animal cells.
Is Cultivated Meat GMO?
No. Cultivated meat is not genetically modified. It can contain the same unmodified animal cells as conventional meat, which comes from fat, muscle, and connective tissues.
What Does Cultivated Meat Taste Like?
Cultivated meat is meat, and therefore tastes like meat and has a comparable texture and mouthfeel. With that being said, most brands producing it are actually working to make it taste even better than the conventional options consumers are used to eating.
Some companies are also considering the idea of mixing cultivated meat with plant-based meat in some of their products to make hybrid burgers and the like.
At the end of the day, all we can ever expect is for things to continuously change. When it comes to the food system, we have needed a massive change in animal agriculture for quite some time.
After all, conventional animal agriculture is a driving factor in environmental catastrophes like rainforest destruction and soil degradation, water contamination, ocean dead zones, and climate change, as well as public health crises like food insecurity and antibiotic resistance.
Not to mention, most people considering a dietary shift away from these products are acutely aware of the present ethical and social justice issues.
Cultivated meat may feel like a totally foreign concept right now, but we think that one day it will make conventional animal agriculture as outdated as those stringed tin cans.