"In 50 years we will get rid of the folly of raising a chicken to eat the wing or the breast, we will make these parts grow independently in a culture medium." The prediction Winston Churchill made in 1932 was advanced a few decades, but was not misguided. Foods that mimic the characteristics of products of animal origin without ingredients from animals being produced are now a reality in the market. And its potential has only started.
All eyes are focused on meat substitutes, with companies like Beyond Meat successfully trading on Wall Street. But this revolution will also affect milk, fish and eggs, products for which, with less noise, alternatives are also being developed.
From a sensory point of view all can be similar, with aromas, smells and textures purportedly similar to those of imitated food. However, the degree of complexity of the technology that develops these substitutes is very variable, and it depends on the product to reach the market, have to be subject to specific regulations and be accepted by consumers.
They can be similar, with similar aromas, smells and textures, but the degree of complexity of the technology that develops these substitutes is very variable
On the shelves of the supermarket we have long found analogues of animal products made entirely with vegetable ingredients. This is the case of imitations of meat products such as Beyond Meat or the Spanish Heüra; of fish like Good Catch; or of eggs like Just. In the future, more technologically complex projects such as Novameat can arrive, which seeks to manufacture imitations of meat using 3D printing, but from the same approach of using only vegetable ingredients. This option has limitations because there are desirable characteristics that are due to the presence of very concentrated proteins, and that cannot be achieved in a formula that only incorporates plants. Imitation is good, but it is not perfect.
Biotechnology is used to save this pitfall, which modifies microorganisms and introduces the genetic material that encodes these desired proteins into them. Fungi, bacteria or modified yeasts are ordered to make the specific protein that, subsequently mixed with fats, aromas and plant sugars, results in a better substitute. Even 100% vegan products can be obtained, without animal intervention of any kind, synthesizing in the laboratory the DNA sequence.
This is the technique followed in Real Vegan Cheese or New Culture to produce cheeses, or in Perfect Day, which manufactures both casein and whey proteins from DNA made by 3D printing that is incorporated into a microorganism. That the taste of meat is due to the interaction of blood hemoglobin with heat? Well, a similar molecule is found that contains the heme group in the plant world (leghemoglobin or heme is found in the roots of legumes) and the DNA that encodes it in a yeast is introduced to manufacture it on demand. This is what Impossible Foods has done to achieve an almost indistinguishable taste of meat.
This scenario is the present and immediate future: the products are in very advanced stages of development or are already on the market.
And we come to a third option that seems like science fiction, but it's close: getting authentic meat, absolutely indistinguishable from meat that comes from an animal, but manufactured in a laboratory. It is cultured or artificial meat.
Muscle stem cells are removed from a live animal and multiplied by providing nutrients inside a bioreactor to get layers formed by muscle fibers. This technology is not yet used to produce whole pieces, since the meat is formed by other tissues (fat, connective tissue, blood vessels), in addition to muscle fibers; but it is mixed with fat and other ingredients and meat products such as hamburgers or sausages are manufactured. Since in 2013 Mark Fost presented the first beef burger, there are projects such as Memphis Meat to make chicken products; New Age Meats, focused on pig meat or Just, who wants to synthesize Kobe meat.
A step forward has been taken by Aleph Farm, which in 2018 announced that it had overcome the technological barrier, developing a system to manufacture a steak with all cell types and three-dimensional structure in the laboratory. A real steak.
Opportunities and challenges
Although recommendations have recently been published that suggested that adults should maintain their current consumption of red and processed meat (irresponsible statements, as explained by Juan Revenga in El Comidista), the scientific consensus is clear: a sustainable food system and a diet healthy is to consume less meat, as recently reported by the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the UN or the EAT-Lancet Commission.
The production of substitutes for animal products can be aligned with environmental objectives. Within the different alternatives, most of the studies focus on the impact of laboratory meat and, using predictive models, estimate that, compared to conventional meat, 99% less land is needed, in addition to reducing the water consumption, greenhouse gas production and eutrophication. And, although on the other hand it can mean a higher energy expenditure, this technology is considered to have room to innovate and improve this aspect.
Are these foods the solution to environmental or public health problems? No. They are not even necessary
From the point of view of public health, artificial meat can be designed so that its composition is healthy. On the other hand, it does not imply any food safety risk, since it is manufactured in a pathogen-free controlled environment, and the possible appearance of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is also avoided.
Considering animal welfare, the production of these foods reduces or eliminates ethical conflicts because, either there is no sacrifice to obtain products, or animals are not used at any point in the processing.
But, given the advantages, there are also some challenges that fundamentally affect laboratory meat.
Within European regulations, cultured meat falls into the category of new food. However, the denomination is the true battlefield (as it is also for imitations that only use vegetable ingredients, in which it is proposed to expressly veto the use of terms used in animal products). The name absolutely determines the acceptance of a market that can reject it because it is considered “artificial” (research shows that names such as “meat without animals” or “clean meat” are better considered than “laboratory meat”).
Their ability to reach the market will depend on their viability to be manufactured on a large scale in a profitable way and, while this happens, the authorities study how to regulate the commercialization of a completely new food, which clashes with the interests of traditional livestock and reluctance of consumers.
Are these foods the solution to environmental or public health problems? No. They are not even necessary because we already have access to sustainable dietary sources of plant origin, which cover all our energy and nutrient requirements. But they can be part of the solution, satisfying the demands of people who want to continue consuming foods of animal origin (or that seem so), but who are concerned about sustainability and animal welfare.
Beatriz Robles (@beatrizcalidad) is a food technologist, master in food safety audit and enthusiast of scientific dissemination (www.seguridadalimentariaconbeatriz.com)
NUTRIR WITH SCIENCE It is a section on food based on scientific evidence and knowledge contrasted by specialists. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: diet and eating habits are now the public health factor that can help us prevent many diseases, from many types of cancer to diabetes. A team of dietitians-nutritionists will help us to know better the importance of food and to demolish, thanks to science, the myths that lead us to eat badly.
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