Some refer to it as “cultured” or “cell-based” meat. Others call it “fake” meat. What is it? It’s a new technology to grow meat in the laboratory and it may show up in the meat sections of our supermarkets someday soon.
Cultured meat has nothing to do with its social standing. Rather it is meat produced when cells from animals are “cultured” or grown under laboratory conditions. Not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes made from vegetable proteins, cell-based meat is grown from actual animal cells. So it is an animal product, not a vegetarian option.
Why do we do need another method to produce meat? Some say it’s to keep up with the growing demand for quality protein sources in our expanding world. Others say it is an alternate way to produce meat for human consumption.
Is cell-cultured meat the same as regular meat? Depends on who you talk to. Muscle fibers produced in the laboratory are the same as that found in a steak, say leading researchers in this technology from Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Yet they also say that they need to tweak the procedure to get the same nutrient content, such as iron, that is found in red meat.
Some groups have petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to better define the term “meat” so we know if we are buying the traditionally produced type or the cultured variety. Hopefully we will see some labeling guidelines on these products before they show up in grocery stores.
And that may be a few years. Regulatory issues and cost (the first lab-grown hamburger patty cost a mere $330,000 to produce) could delay the introduction of cultured meat into our food supply for a while.
Are there any concerns with growing meat in the laboratory? Depending on who you listen to, some groups say this method of meat production would result in less land and water use. Others organizations voice concerns that growing meat in the lab would impact the environment more negatively than our traditional way of raising cattle since it would take massive amounts of energy resources to produce meat in this way.
Nutritionally, these products would be similar in some nutrients such as protein and different in others. Scientists say they are looking into modifying the type of fat in lab-grown meat, for example.
Lastly, what will cultured meat be called? Is it real “meat” or a meat-type product? That remains for either the USDA or FDA or both agencies to decide. For now, we can call it something new on the horizon.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.