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From Lab to Plate: Understanding the Science behind Cultured Meat

Introduction

In a world grappling with pressing challenges such as environmental degradation, animal welfare concerns, and food security issues, the concept of cultured meat emerges as a compelling and timely solution. Cultured meat, also known as lab-grown or artificial meat, is created through a complex process that starts with the collection of animal cells and ends with the production of meat products ready for consumption (Kumar et al., 2021). It is important that we understand the science behind cultured meat, exploring its production process, potential benefits, and the challenges it faces. Additionally, by examining the consumer acceptance of cultured meat and the current status of legislation in different regions, we can have an impartial and informed discourse concerning one’s dietary choices.

Figure 1 - Dramatization of consumption of cultured meat (Are You Ready to Eat Meat That Was Grown in a Lab, and Not at a Farm? |, n.d.)
From Lab to Plate: The Production Process

Cultured meat production begins with the collection of cells. This is followed by cell culture, proliferation, and tissue formation, stages which will be explained further. The final step involves harvesting and processing the resulting tissue. Then, after proper packaging, the final product is ready for sale (Siddiqui et al., 2022).


To collect cells, a small sample of tissue, usually muscle tissue, is taken from a live animal. Non-invasive methods such as biopsies are used, meaning they do not harm the animal (Ben-Arye & Levenberg, 2019). A biopsy involves removing a small portion of tissue using tools such as needles or scalpels, depending on the tissue. Muscle tissue contains satellite cells, which are a type of stem cells, which are necessary for cultured meat production. These stem cells are isolated from the tissue through a process called disruption (Post, 2014). In simple terms, disruption involves breaking apart the tissue to separate and set aside only the stem cells. Stem cells are important because they can generate, through a process called differentiation, different types of cells with specialised functions, depending on the conditions they are exposed to. Satellite cells can differentiate into only muscle cells (Siegel et al., 2011).

Cell culture involves growing isolated cells under suitable conditions with the right nutrients, hormones, and growth factors. This allows them to develop into the desired type of cells for producing the desired type of meat, initially on a small scale. The cells multiply through a process called proliferation, resulting in an exponential increase in cell numbers (Chriki & Hocquette, 2020). Tissue formation aims to mimic the natural structure of the tissue. The cells are transferred into a bioreactor, a large vessel that provides optimal conditions. In the bioreactor, a scaffold is present, which acts as a support structure. It allows the cells to form a 3D muscle tissue (Siddiqui, Bahmid, et al., 2022), similar to how support structures are used in cultivating grapevines.


Once the tissue reaches the desired level of maturity, it is removed from the bioreactor and processed into various types of meat. The collected tissue is usually in thin layers and needs to be stacked to achieve the desired thickness, like traditional meat products. Additionally, different types of cells can be grown together to create a three-dimensional structure resembling meat (Chen et al., 2022). Special packaging is required for cultured meat to preserve its qualities and have a desirable shelf life, and various alternatives are already available (Siddiqui et al., 2022).

Figure 2 - Simplified infographic of cultured meat production steps. Biopsy is the method through which cells or tissue are collected from the animal, using tools such as a scalpel or a needle. The desired type of cells to be collected are stem cells because they can generate different types of specialised cells. The growth serum is the medium in which the cells will grow and consists of all the nutrients needed so they grow, multiply, and differentiate into the desired type of cell. The myotubes are one type of muscle cell that will develop to become muscle tissue (fibre) (Lab-Grown Meat | Ag Moos, n.d.).
Beyond the Butcher: Why Cultured Meat?

Cultured meat offers the potential for sustainable production, improved animal welfare, and reduced environmental impact. It may provide safer, healthier food options and better food access in remote areas.

Cultured meat offers the potential to improve animal welfare and address the growing concerns about the impact of meat consumption on the environment. It allows people to enjoy meat products without causing harm to animals, as the production process minimises animal suffering. In addition, cultured meat can be produced using cells from endangered or deceased animals, eliminating the need to hunt or breed these species for their meat. This can help protect wild populations and promote sustainability (Jahir et al., 2023). Cultured meat production is considered more sustainable, due to needing fewer resources such as land, but its long-term environmental impact is still uncertain. Efficient practices and innovation are needed to meet demand. Challenges include energy requirements, waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., gases that trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change). Research is ongoing to assess environmental sustainability and optimise production techniques. (Kumar et al., 2021).

Figure 3 - Artwork representing cultured meat as a lab-produced product (Ron, 2022).

The consumption of conventional meat has been linked to various deadly diseases. Moreover, the presence of bacteria or agents that can cause disease and the resistance of these bacteria to antibiotics are concerns in the traditional meat industry. Cultured meat is considered safer due to its controlled environment, reduced risk of contamination (i.e., the presence of harmful bacteria), and absence of infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. This could lead to lower health-related issues and costs. However, the nutritional aspects of cultured meat are still unknown, including its composition and micronutrient content. The composition can be customised to enhance nutritional value and reduce cholesterol risk, but overall, the health benefits of cultured meat are speculative at this stage (Kumar et al., 2021). Moreover, cultured meat offers the potential for lower costs and improved food access, benefiting food security and providing opportunities for local production in remote areas (Newton & Blaustein-Rejto, 2021).


Appetite for Change? Consumer Views and Other Obstacles.

Currently, the production of cultured meat is expensive compared to traditional meat production. The high costs are primarily due to the complex and resource-intensive process of culturing animal cells in a lab setting. Scaling up production (i.e., producing it at industrial capacities) and reducing costs are significant challenges that need to be overcome for cultured meat to become more accessible and competitive in the market (Jahir et al., 2023). The technology for producing cultured meat is still in its early stages and faces various technical challenges. The process of culturing cells and growing them into meat products is complex and requires further research and development to optimize efficiency, texture, taste, and nutritional composition (Eibl et al., 2021). The nutritional aspects of cultured meat are not fully understood. The composition of cultured meat, including its vitamin and mineral content, fatty acid profiles, and other essential nutrients, may differ from that of traditional meat. Research is ongoing to optimize the nutritional composition of cultured meat to ensure it can provide a comparable or superior nutritional value (Broucke et al., 2023).

Figure 4 - Artwork showing cultured meat as a grocery option (Dolgin, 2020).

Consumer acceptance of cultured meat is hindered by social, psychological, and structural barriers. A better understanding of these barriers and the development of effective strategies to overcome them can be gained by utilising insights from cognitive science. Cognitive science can help improve consumer acceptance of cultured meat by understanding how people think and make decisions about food. By studying factors such as taste preferences, ethics, and familiarity, researchers can develop strategies to address concerns and promote the benefits of cultured meat. They can also optimise the sensory aspects of cultured meat to enhance consumer satisfaction. In the future, as cultured meat becomes more widely known, research on this innovative protein source can provide significant societal and scientific benefits (Rosenfeld & Tomiyama, 2023).


Consumer opinions on cultured meat also vary across continents. In North America, there is interest and acceptance among environmentally conscious consumers, while some express scepticism. Asia has diverse views, with some embracing cultured meat and others concerned about safety and naturalness. South America is still developing opinions, influenced by cultural factors and traditions. Consumer awareness and acceptance in Africa are limited and depend on factors such as education and affordability. Europe shows a mixed response, with support for research but also reservations in countries with strong meat cultures (Siddiqui, Khan, et al., 2022). As an example, the Netherlands is leading the development of meat culturing techniques and the public is very open to the concept (Siddiqui, Khan, et al., 2022), while Italy has recently implemented legislation to prohibit the production and sale of cultured meat to safeguard its culinary traditions and heritage. (Italy Moves to Ban Lab-Grown Meat to Protect Food Heritage - BBC News, n.d.).


Regarding legislation, Singapore famously first introduced commercially available nuggets made from cultured meat. In the United States, the FDA and USDA have agreed to collaborate on regulations for cultured meat, with the FDA overseeing cell cultivation and growth and the USDA responsible for the transformation of cultured cells into finished meat products and their subsequent distribution. Late in 2022, the FDA gave its stamp of approval for the commercialisation of a chicken cultured meat product and it's still waiting for USDA’s decision before full approval. In the European Union, cultured meat may be regulated under the Novel Food Regulations and is expected to have similar nutritional value to conventional meat (Siddiqui, Khan, et al., 2022).


Conclusion

Cultured meat represents a promising solution to address various challenges associated with conventional meat production. With its potential for sustainable production, improved animal welfare, reduced environmental impact, and enhanced food security, cultured meat offers a glimpse into a more sustainable and ethical future. However, it is essential to overcome technical and cost-related hurdles to scale up production and make cultured meat more accessible to consumers. Furthermore, understanding and addressing consumer concerns and barriers through insights from cognitive science can play a crucial role in fostering acceptance and accelerating the adoption of cultured meat. As countries around the world navigate the regulatory landscape, it is clear that the future of cultured meat holds great potential, and further research and innovation will continue to shape this exciting field.

Bibliographical References

Ben-Arye, T., & Levenberg, S. (2019). Tissue Engineering for Clean Meat Production. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 3, 46. https://doi.org/10.3389/FSUFS.2019.00046/BIBTEX


Broucke, K., Van Pamel, E., Van Coillie, E., Herman, L., & Van Royen, G. (2023). Cultured meat and challenges ahead: A review on nutritional, technofunctional and sensorial properties, safety and legislation. Meat Science, 195, 109006. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.MEATSCI.2022.109006


Chen, L., Guttieres, D., Koenigsberg, A., Barone, P. W., Sinskey, A. J., & Springs, S. L. (2022). Large-scale cultured meat production: Trends, challenges and promising biomanufacturing technologies. Biomaterials, 280, 121274. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.BIOMATERIALS.2021.121274


Chriki, S., & Hocquette, J. F. (2020). The Myth of Cultured Meat: A Review. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/FNUT.2020.00007/BIBTEX


Eibl, R., Senn, Y., Gubser, G., Jossen, V., Van Den Bos, C., & Eibl, D. (2021). Cellular Agriculture: Opportunities and Challenges. Https://Doi.Org/10.1146/Annurev-Food-063020-123940, 12, 51–73. https://doi.org/10.1146/ANNUREV-FOOD-063020-123940


Italy moves to ban lab-grown meat to protect food heritage - BBC News. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65110744


Jahir, N. R., Ramakrishna, S., Abdullah, A. A. A., & Vigneswari, S. (2023). Cultured meat in cellular agriculture: Advantages, applications and challenges. Food Bioscience, 53, 102614. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.FBIO.2023.102614


Kumar, P., Sharma, N., Sharma, S., Mehta, N., Verma, A. K., Chemmalar, S., & Sazili, A. Q. (2021). In-vitro meat: a promising solution for sustainability of meat sector. Journal of Animal Science and Technology, 63(4), 693. https://doi.org/10.5187/JAST.2021.E85


Newton, P., & Blaustein-Rejto, D. (2021). Social and Economic Opportunities and Challenges of Plant-Based and Cultured Meat for Rural Producers in the US. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 5, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/FSUFS.2021.624270/BIBTEX


Post, M. J. (2014). Cultured beef: medical technology to produce food. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 94(6), 1039–1041. https://doi.org/10.1002/JSFA.6474


Rosenfeld, D. L., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2023). Toward consumer acceptance of cultured meat. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.TICS.2023.05.002


Siddiqui, S. A., Bahmid, N. A., Karim, I., Mehany, T., Gvozdenko, A. A., Blinov, A. V., Nagdalian, A. A., Arsyad, M., & Lorenzo, J. M. (2022). Cultured meat: Processing, packaging, shelf life, and consumer acceptance. LWT, 172, 114192. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.LWT.2022.114192


Siddiqui, S. A., Khan, S., Ullah Farooqi, M. Q., Singh, P., Fernando, I., & Nagdalian, A. (2022). Consumer behavior towards cultured meat: A review since 2014. Appetite, 179, 106314. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.APPET.2022.106314


Siegel, A. L., Kuhlmann, P. K., & Cornelison, D. D. W. (2011). Muscle satellite cell proliferation and association: new insights from myofiber time-lapse imaging. Skeletal Muscle, 1(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/2044-5040-1-7/FIGURES/2

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