The first lab-grown hamburger, grown from stem cells from a cow, was cooked and eaten at a live press conference / “web-TV cookery program” on August 5. The synthetic in vitro meat took three months to grow and, all told, was five years in the making, at a cost of $332,000 for research and development (largely from philanthropic donors including Google co-founder Sergey Brin).
After the in vitro meat was fried up with a great deal of butter, it reportedly looked enough like meat and had a similar texture and color (thanks to beetroot and saffron and browning in a pan — stem cell strands are a pale pasty color). One tester said the synthetic meat had “quite some intense taste“; another said it was “a bit like cake.” The overall assessment was that it was definitely “meaty” and not reminiscent of something like a tofu burger.
To make an in vitro burger, antibiotics and fetal bovine serum are added to muscle cells from a living cow. The cells multiply; 20,000 strands are needed for one burger.
The nutritional qualities of test tube meat have yet to be determined. The lead scientist behind it, Mark Post of Maastricht University, says that he feels sufficiently “comfortable” about the in vitro meat’s safety and planned to take the leftovers home to feed to his children.
Scientists’ goal in creating synthetic meat is idealistic, to help feed the world while using less water, land and energy and releasing less carbon dioxide and methane than are consumed when raising cattle. PETA is one animal rights organization that supports the creation of in vitro meat as it could “spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming.”
The one in vitro burger was certainly expensive to produce, so it will not be a viable solution to address world hunger in the short run, if ever. Exporting yet more products from our industrialized food system to developing countries is not how to end food insecurity, many say. As John Vidal writes in the Guardian, “most of Africa and Asia used to be self-sufficient in food, but over the past 30 years nearly every developing country has become dependent on imports” and much of it highly processed foods.
Dr. Iain Brassington, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester, argues that producing all the food we eat “interferes with nature — wheat, for example, is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding, and is grown on land that has been systematically altered for the purpose.” Point taken, but industrialization and technology and scientific development have meant that we are able to “interfere with nature” more than ever before.
Here are some other foods created in labs by Western companies that, while not entirely created in a test tube, are far removed from what Mother Nature gives us.
Also known as crab sticks, surimi is made from the pulverized flesh of white fish combined with other fish products, egg whites, oils, salt, starches, spices, rive vinegar, carrageenan and some other items. Beloved by food manufacturers because it “enables them to take cheap fish and upgrade it to a taste and mouthfeel of the most expensive fish meats,” surimi is cheap and low in fat but high in sodium.
Since it can be made from a mixture of “fish products,” there’s no way to know if the fish in surimi were caught using environmentally responsible fishing methods — if you do eat fish, best to stick to actual ones like the Alaska pollock that surimi is often made out of.
2. American Cheese
When I was really young, I was puzzled how these plastic-wrapped, plasticy squares could be called “cheese” — they had a quite different taste and texture. The bright orange slices can be considered the archetypal processed food. A single slice is full of sodium and fat as well as milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate and whey protein concentrate. Needless to say, there are plenty of other ways to get your calcium!
Aka “fake butter,” margarine is made from hydrogenated or refined plant oils, water, sometimes milk, sometimes soy, salt, preservatives, beta carotene for color and more. While it contains no cholesterol (as it’s made from vegetable oils) and many brands are vegan, margarine can still contain trans fats so it’s not necessarily better for your heart. If you eat dairy, butter may be preferable (occasionally) or there are healthier vegan alternatives. Or you could stick to spreading something else on your toast.
4. Whipped Topping
Photo via Jamie/Flickr
Cool Whip and other imitation whipped cream toppings contain some of the same ingredients as margarine: water, (heart disease-causing) hydrogenated vegetable oil and beta carotene. Other ingredients are high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, mysterious “natural and artificial flavor,” xanthan and guar gums. You can make a vegan alternative from coconut milk and sugar.
Soda and carbonated soft drinks (containing water, some type of sweetener, some type of flavoring, some kind of acid, among other things) might as well be water for many people who reach for a bottle of the fizzy stuff to quench their thirst. Aware of the connections of soda to obesity, diabetes and other ailments, Americans are now drinking more bottled water. While average soda consumption peaked in 1998 when Americans drank 54 gallons a year, they now “only” consume 44 gallons.
Some would call this the original made-in-the-lab meat. Like surimi, Spam is made from chopped up meat (pork, in this case) to which are added water, modified potato starch and sodium nitrite. It is packed with fat and sodium (a single slice can give you more than 57 percent of your recommended daily intake). It’s an example of a highly processed food that U.S. food manufacturers have exported around the globe: residents of Hawai’i consume the most Spam per capita in the U.S. and it is widely eaten in Asia.
Photos from Thinkstock unless otherwise noted