6 Things People Are Talking About When They Talk About Lab-Grown Meat

Image courtesy of Karen_Chappell

If you’ve tuned into the lab-grown meat discussion whatsoever in the past few years, it could seem like it’s only a matter of time before we’re all dining on hot dogs, bacon, and burgers produced in a lab by scientists. We’re not quite at the point of casually shopping for these products alongside meat derived from animals, as there are still things the scientific community has to hash out before lab meat hits the market.

Scientists have claimed victories in recent years with things like a 2013 lab-grown burger experiment from the Netherlands, and a “cultured meat” — the term preferred by scientists for lab-produced meat — meatball introduced here in the U.S. in February.

Along with those advances comes a discussion about whether or not cultured meat is better for people than conventional meat, and whether making meat in a lab could have a positive impact on the environment or a negative one, as The Washington Post points out in a recent article. Here are a few things scientists and those in the lab-grown meat industry talk about when they talk about lab-grown meat:

1. Environmental impact

Is growing meat in a lab better for the environment than raising animals to slaughter? On the one hand, scientists cite a 2011 study that calculated that growing meat in labs would cut down on the land required to produce steaks, sausages and bacon by 99% percent and reduce the associated need for water by 90 percent. One pound of lab meat would produce less greenhouse-gas emissions than those produced by cows, pigs, and poultry.

On the other hand, cultured meat production isn’t so great when you take into account the generation of electricity and heat you need to grow cells in a lab, authors of a 2015 life-cycle analysis of potential cultured meat production in the United States point out.

It’s too soon to tell what environmental impacts of the first products will be, experts say, so we should keep researching them but prepare to manage the downsides.

2. No more dangerous bacteria or antibiotics in food

Cultured meats would be produced in sterile environments, which means they wouldn’t have any dangerous bacteria, proponents say, thus helping to prevent the spread of food-related infections in humans.

Skipping animals would also mean avoiding antibiotics they’ve consumed to help them fight disease and grow faster. Those antibiotics have been linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is dangerous to humans.

3. It might help with that whole “carcinogens in processed meats” thing

Remember when the World Health Organization linked processed meat like bacon and hot dogs to cancer? Though we don’t know exactly what it is about those products that could be cancer-causing, one suspect is heme iron, which is common in meat and is basically only found in meat. Producers of cultured meat say they can make beef and pork in the lab that is free of heme iron, and thus, perhaps cut down on the risk of cancer related to those products.

4. Less saturated fat = healthier meat

It could also be possible to remove or reduce saturated fat in lab-grown meat, and replace it with healthier omega-3 fatty acids, scientists say.

“Stem cells are, in principle, capable of making omega-3 fatty acids. If we can tap into that machinery of the cell, then we could make healthier hamburgers,” Dr. Mark Post, who is working on the fat content of lab-grown beef, tells The Post.

5. Certain preservatives may still be necessary

Nitrates and nitrites, other possibly carcinogenic compounds, might still be required to prevent things like hot dogs from losing their color. Post says that because cultured meats are sterile, however, they wouldn’t need as much nitrate to stay safe to eat.

6. It still has to taste good

Other chemicals can’t be done away with if you want it to taste good — namely heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can cause DNA damage, the WHO’s report says, but which also are created as part of the Maillard reaction in the cooking process. That reaction is what gives cooked meat its brown color and tasty flavor. Take it away, and meat won’t taste like it was grilled.

There are other issues as well, all of which add up to trying to figure out a balancing act. Basically, there’s no way to have something that tastes exactly like meat that doesn’t also come with a few downsides for your health.

“We’re not there yet,” Uma Valeti, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Memphis Meats, maker of the cultured meat meatball, told The Post, “but in just a few years, we expect to be selling protein-packed pork, beef and chicken that tastes identical to conventionally raised meat but that is cleaner, safer and all-around better than meat from animals grown on farms.”

Lab-grown meat is in your future, and it may be healthier than the real stuff [The Washington Post]