Labs or Plants: Which Makes the Best Meat?

What is cultured meat? Labs or Plants: Which Makes the Best Meat?

In the past year, our consumer research has explored peoples’ perceptions of environmentally sustainable and healthy diets and what they might mean for protein consumption. We’ve also seen an uptick in interest in alternative eating patterns, including a plant-based food diet and the flexitarian diet. These and other alternative eating patterns have led to an increased interest in consuming alternative meat products (e.g., “meat” made from vegetables). Variations of meat alternatives that have been around for years typically use ingredients such as soy, gluten and textured vegetable protein. More unusual alternative ingredients include tempeh, jackfruit, lentils, quinoa, mushrooms and more.

What if you could still enjoy animal-based meat products without causing harm to animals and the environment? To meet this desire, food scientists are working to bring cultured meat (also known as “lab meat” because it is produced in a facility) to a grocer or restaurant near you. As consumers are committing to eating healthier—both for themselves and the planet—environmentally sustainable diets consisting of meat alternatives and/or plant-based meat products are becoming increasingly popular. Let’s take a closer look at the latest innovations in alternative protein production.

Cell-cultured meat: if you grow it, they will come?

Cultured meat goes by many names: cell-based meat, cell-cultured meat, lab-grown meat and “clean” meat. At the end of the day, all these designations refer to the same thing: growing a full piece of meat from animal cells in a lab.

As we previously have discussed, these meat cells start from animal stem cells, a specific type of cell that can give rise to many other kinds of cells. After the stem cells are harvested, they are incubated in a nutrient-rich broth. Cells multiply, divide and begin development into muscles cells. After a time, these cells will start to rearrange themselves into small fibers, then grow into cylinders, then form into a ring of tissue. The tissue arranges into strands, which can have more than a trillion cells each. Finally, many strands are layered together to produce a finished product, such as a burger patty.

Cultured meat may be designed to be better for your health than conventional meat. Because the meat is grown a piece at a time through the expression of different genes, scientists are currently working to control fat expression (thereby decreasing saturated fats and increasing omega fatty acids) and other aspects to make cultured meat healthier than farm-raised meat. However, it has been noted that cell-based meat may end up not being as rich in iron as conventional meat, since lab-based meat doesn’t use blood to exchange oxygen.

Cell-cultured meat may also be theoretically more environmentally friendly because it could decrease natural resource usage and lower demand for livestock animals. Many working in the field of producing lab-grown meat note that growing meat in a lab will be beneficial for the environment. Critics believe that although environmental degradation may be reduced by growing meat, the energy put into producing lab-based meat on a larger scale may be just as high.

You might be asking yourself: Who will make sure that cell-cultured meat is safe? In March 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they would work together to regulate cell-cultured food products. This means that any type of food product that will be grown in a lab that derives from an animal origin will be regulated and inspected to ensure that it’s both safely produced and accurately labeled.

Plant-based meat: turning a new leaf

Plant-based meat can be made from different sources, including legume (e.g. pea) proteins, potato, soy (tofu, tempeh), cereals (rice, chickpeas), mushrooms, and more. Other ingredients are also added to create a meaty consistency while avoiding those of animal-based origins. In order to achieve meat-like effects such as red “blood,” plant-based meat can have key ingredients like soy leghemoglobin or a mix of pea protein and beets.

Wondering how the nutrition profile of plant-based meat compares with that of animal-based meat? Let’s take a look at the popular plant-based burgers. Some plant-based burgers have up to 20 grams of protein, which is just as much as in a ground chuck-beef burger patty! While this alternative protein most frequently consists of soy, new technology is starting to explore other types of protein sources. Plant-based burgers can also be developed with higher iron levels than are found in a beef burger. Plant burgers currently on the market are cholesterol-free and may have lower total fat content than some conventional beef burgers. But, in order to increase flavor, some plant-based meat may have even higher levels of sodium (e.g. 150–400 grams) and/or higher levels of saturated fats than conventional meat.

While plant-based protein consumption is encouraged to reduce environmental impact and increase healthy food choices, there are some things to be attentive to. First, plant-based meat may not necessarily be as healthy for you, especially if you need to monitor your sodium levels. Additionally, although plant-based meat can be made with ingredients that are lactose-free, gluten-free, and catered towards specific diets, these same ingredients may still trigger different types of allergic reactions (including wheat, potato, or soy) in those with allergies.

What about these burgers being “planet-friendly”? Despite the potential for plant-based meat production to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent and drastically reduce land use and energy consumption, scientists believe more research is still needed before any definitive claims can be made. However, the preliminary data on the positive environmental impacts of producing many types of plant-based meat products is promising.

Since traditional plant-based meat alternatives have long been declared safe by the FDA, there are not many new food safety concerns associated with plant burgers and other plant meat. However, with the introduction of new formulations and ingredients to take a basic soy burger to the “next level” (e.g. with simulated “blood”), the FDA will oversee the safety, review and regulation of new processes and ingredients.

The meat market is growing

Creating alternative meat is a growing industry; what started first with small companies and start-ups is slowly being picked up by larger companies. In the next ten years, this new age of alternative meat products is expected to reach a global worth of $140 billion. Most importantly for consumers, these new products tout supporting environmental sustainability, decreasing food waste, increasing consumption accessibility and promoting health benefits.

No matter your reason for exploring alternative meat products, there is a plethora of options that are becoming available for all taste palates. Also, even as sustainability continues to drive our food choices, consumers can rest assured that food science will continue to ensure the safety and feasibility of these new products.

This article contains contributions from Tamika Sims, PhD, and Lily Yang, PhD Postdoctoral Research Associate at Virginia Tech in the Department of Food Science and Technology.