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There is now a race on to develop ‘meatless meat’ – food that tastes (and bleeds) exactly like meat. | Photo source Mosa Meat

Tech Explained: Meat without animals

Tech Explained

New companies are having success in creating plant-based and cell-based products that taste and look like meat

According to a National Geographic report, agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere “than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined.”

Farming also uses the greatest amount of freshwater and is a major cause of pollution, as runoff from fertilisers and manure damages ecosystems in lakes, rivers and coastal regions around the globe.

Most experts now agree that one of the best ways of reducing the environmental impact of farming is to eat less meat. Against this background, there is now a race to develop “meatless meat” — food that tastes (and bleeds) exactly like meat. Meatless meat can either be made from plant materials or through artificial cell replication — meat that is grown in a lab instead of from an animal. So, how are these foods created and how can meat be grown without animals?

Plant-based meat

To create new versions of plant-based meat, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods use materials derived from plants to give their meatless-meat the same flavour and texture as animal meat. Ingredients include soy and pea proteins. Some products, like the Beyond Burger, use beet juice to give the product a red colour and to create a “bleeding” effect. 

Impossible Foods uses a different formula and also adds heme. Heme is a component in animal blood that gives meat its “meaty” taste. However, Impossible Foods harvests heme from yeast, which has been genetically modified to produce a soy haemoglobin. 

Although plant-based, these and similar products are all highly processed, which in itself has environmental implications. Soy could also be a problem, as it is mostly grown on huge mono-crop farms that deplete the soil of valuable nutrients.

Others object to the use of genetically-modified organisms and some of the most popular plant-based meats contain more saturated fats and salt than animal meat.

Cell-based meat

Cell-based, or cultured meat, is meat that is produced without using an actual animal. Instead, it is grown in a lab. The meat is made by first taking a muscle sample from an animal. Technicians collect stem cells from the tissue and bathe them in a nutrient-rich bath. The cells then multiply and differentiate into the fibres that form muscle tissue. One tissue sample from a cow can yield enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pound hamburgers.

Meat grown in this way is also very low in fat. In fact, it can be too low, giving the meat a dry and tasteless flavour. Researchers in this area are continuing to work on producing meat with the right flavour and ratio of lean-to-fat. 

Once the process is perfected in taste and composition, the next challenge is to scale up production. Eventually, the meat will be grown in large-scale industrial bioreactors that operate in a similar way to breweries. It is estimated that a 1,000-litre bioreactor could grow 30 tons of cultured meat in three weeks.

However, other hurdles still remain before cell-based meat becomes a dinner-table staple. One is regulatory approval. The meat will need to be proven safe by regulatory bodies in each country where it is sold.

Although cell-based meat is certainly cruelty-free, it is unclear whether it will also be more environmentally-friendly than raising animals. One issue is the energy and nutrients involved in growing the meat. And, of course, there is also the question of whether people will be willing to eat meat grown in a tank.

The future of meat

Despite the controversy, makers of both plant-based and cell-based meats have been gaining a great deal of funding lately.

Beyond Meat is planning to launch the first public stock offering for one of its new plant-based meat companies.

Last year, cultured fish company Finless Foods raised €3 million in funding. The company hopes to have its cell-based Bluefin tuna on the market soon, at around €300 per kilogram (as compared to around €225 per pound for the real deal).

Netherlands-based Mosa Meat has also recently raised €7.5 million to upscale their cell-based production process and build a ‘meat brewery’.

It is clear that cell-based and plant-based meat still has a way to go before they are mainstream products, but perhaps not too much longer. The processed meat market in the US alone is worth €27 billion. Last year, it grew by 2 percent, while the €1.2 billion meat alternatives market grew by 22 percent. There is clearly a great deal of interest in fake meat.