Lab-grown foods: sustainable solution or luxury product?

As the world’s population continues to grow, so too does the demand for innovative types of food with little to no environmental impact. Test tube meat, super powder meal replacements, lab-grown milk and plant-based eggs could find their way to your table soon, as Barbara Barkhausen in Sydney reports.

Synthetic foods such as lab-grown beef and super meals in a bottle could help feed the world’s growing population. (Image credit: CIAT, flickr/Creative Commons)

Synthetic foods such as lab-grown beef and super meals in a bottle could help feed the world’s growing population. (Image credit: CIAT, flickr/Creative Commons)

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 people by 2050. To feed all these people, scientists and companies around the globe are experimenting today with the food of tomorrow.

A professor in Australia is taking this to the next level by mixing research with art. Oron Catts’ latest experiment with in-vitro meat was on display at an exhibition in Dublin. The installation, which he named Stir Fry because he cultures meat from insects, was explosive in more ways than one: it literally exploded, likely due to a build-up of gas. No one was harmed.

Technological luxury product

Catts is one of the pioneers of cultivated meat, which some argue could become the food of the future. The scientist, who heads the synthetic biology lab at the School for Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, has been experimenting with artificial meat since 2000 when he helped Harvard scientists cultivate the first in-vitro meat ever developed in a laboratory.

Unlike his colleague Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who developed the first ever lab-grown hamburger, Catts called in-vitro meat “a technological luxury product,” something that should only be sold as a speciality item.

Post, in contrast, is collaborating with the company Mosa Meat with the goal of stocking artificial beef in the form of a hamburger on supermarket shelves within the next five years.

Huge amounts of resources

Catts regards the production of artificial meat as too complex for mass consumption. “Science is not magic. The lab is no black box. Usually the way it is portrayed in the media is you start with a stem cell and you finish with a steak,” said Catts. “But the process requires huge amounts of resources.”

The process requires foetal calf serum, which is the blood plasma of an unborn cow. Even after 65 years of research in this field, there is still no alternative for this, which is why Catts is rather critical of the commercial aims of his Dutch colleagues.

Other products in the pipeline

Other products touted as foods of the future are already on the market, including the alleged super powders Huel and Soylent. These powdered meal replacements – which claim to provide an adult’s body with all the required nutrients – are meant for stressed-out career types too busy to think about dinner: just mix with water and drink.

US-made Soylent took the market by storm after its 27-year-old inventor Rob Rhinehart published a blog in 2013 that opened with the words “How I stopped eating food”.

“It doesn’t taste good”

But many buyers aren’t quite convinced with the taste or texture of the products. One online reviewer wrote that Soylent “doesn’t taste good; rather, it tastes bad in a way I don’t mind”.

Britain’s Huel faces similar complaints, raising doubts about its suitability as a meal replacement.

“It claims to be vanilla flavour but it’s like no vanilla I’ve ever tasted – cloying, artificial, incredibly sweet,” wrote a journalist, who tested the product with friends for the Guardian. The group decided that the unflavoured version is passable.

Eggs without eggs

Many expect that the market will be inundated in years to come with synthetic foods trying to taste as similar as possible to the real ones.

Possible foods of the future that have already been launched or are still in the development phase include a plant-based hamburger that tastes like real beef (the Impossible Burger), scrambled eggs without the eggs (Just Scramble) or Muufri, a synthetic milk that is supposed to taste like cow’s milk.

But whether these take off or remain a niche product, resource-intensive diets in western countries and fast-developing ones will have to change for the planet to hold all of us. If not, taste and texture will be the least of our concerns.

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