In fact science has been changing the food we eat for many years. Genetic engineering has given us tomatoes that don’t spoil and melons whose taste can be dialed from sour to sweet. Then there are high fiber carrots bred with more of the antioxidant beta carotene and onions whose flavor is gene altered to contain more flavonoids. Our refrigerators are filled with these wonders.
An Israeli start up is trolling for drought hardy genes that will allow food crops to thrive in the desert (think global warming). A U.K. company is using biotech to alter the caffeine content in coffee. Synthetic mother’s milk is just around the corner, its design bolstered by the use of artificial intelligence. Then there are the theatrics of food delivery – robots that bring groceries to your door and drones that drop off double espressos, sugar on the side. Fast food preparation by robots is commonplace in Japan.
But nothing has shaken things up like “clean” meat. We are only years away from having synthetic meat produced in
fermenters – uncontaminated protein. Cells from one live cow, we are told, will be enough to make 175 million quarter pounders. McDonald’s will never be the same. Some say this should come as no surprise. Meat has been
under fire for years, linked to increased risk for heart disease and colorectal cancer, in addition to gout and uric acid based kidney stones. Processed meat is loaded with nitrite preservatives, and grilling or even broiling beef is known to produce polyaromatic carcinogens.
Then there are the environmental problems. Fecal waste from cattle is a major source of nutrients that spread toxic algae in our waterways. Even more damning is livestock flatulence, responsible for nearly half of the country’s methane emissions, the worst of the greenhouses gases. To address these concerns, food scientists went first to
plant-based substitutes – veggie burgers, tofu dogs. PepsiCo explored mycoprotein from fermented fungus. Kellogg’s checked out smoothies containing leaves from the West African moringa tree. Aspire Foods went a step further, putting cricket powder in protein bars and offering roasted crickets as a crunchy snack. BBQ sauce or sour cream was optional.
“We are only years away from having synthetic meat produced in fermenters – uncontaminated protein.” But for clean protein, the Holy Grail has been synthetic meat – complete with muscle, fat and connective tissue. And dozens of companies around the world are trying to make it. Starting with cell cultures from cattle and added nutrients, the process uses a bioreactor for cell growth and scaffolding trays for maturation and cell-type differentiation. The final product is a thin slab of meat. There are, of course, a zillion parameters to optimize and scale-up problems galore. But the biochemical smarts are there, and it’s going to happen.
Teams of cell biologists, food chemists and material engineers are targeting 2024 for market entry. It could be sooner. “We know we can build real tissue,” says Neta Levon, R&D head of Adelph Farms in Israel. The challenge is scale and cost. And, of course, regulatory approval, labeling and government oversight. Then there’s the matter of customer acceptance. Would you eat a cheeseburger containing patties made in a factory? In a few years, you’ll have a chance to try. And that’s no bull.