Humans are hungry for fake meat. 2019 was pretty big for the faux meat world, withand and going public. The promise of alternative meats is a future where animals aren’t farmed to fill our stomachs and while companies like Impossible and Beyond look to plant-based meat substitutes to solve that ethical conundrum, scientists are hard at work growing beef in a lab — from just a handful of cells.
In a new study, published in the journal Nature Food on Monday, researchers in Israel detail the creation of a 3D scaffold carved out of textured soy protein, an edible byproduct of soybean oil production. Their creation acts like a skeleton for bovine cells to grow around, creating beef-like muscle tissue that when fried or baked — three volunteers say — had “a pleasant meaty flavour” and it adequately replicated the texture of a meat bite.
The process of developing the lab-grown meat is markedly different to the one used byand Beyond Meat. Those meat alternative manufacturers build out their offerings using soy and potato proteins. They’ve earned plaudits for building a plant-based offering that still tastes like the real thing, even though structurally it doesn’t much resemble meat.
Cultured meat is a little different — it aims to create meat on the molecular level. Scientists believe its possible to coax cells from cows or chickens into becoming particular muscle tissues but to mould them into a physical, 3D-approximation of a cut of meat, you need a scaffold.
That’s where the textured soy protein comes in. The edible material is porous, like a sponge, which gives cells space to adhere and grow and it can also be shaped in the lab easily. The research team added a mixture of cow muscle cells known as “satellite cells”, and then cultured them with a mixture of factors to stimulate their growth and maturation. Comparing their lab-grown meat with just the soy protein scaffold showed the team had recapitulated some of the physical attributes of real meat.
Cell-based meats are still a long way from mass production and they don’t quite have the current scalability that Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat can offer. They’re expensive to make and you need a lab to do so. Developing a reliable scaffold which produces the same flavor and enables cheaper, more high-throughput manufacturing will be just the first step in bringing cell-based meats to market.
The next will be getting us to eat it.