How does lab-grown meat even work?

Lab grown meat, or ‘cultivated meat,’ is a fairly new development in the ongoing quest to satisfy carnivorous appetites and reduce our carbon footprint. It isn’t an easy balance to strike. However, new technology is dawning on the horizon. 

The base process of making cultivated meat is fairly straightforward. Take cultures cells from a harmless biopsy of your preferred animal-cow, chicken, turkey, etc.-and feed them a mixture of amino acid, sugars, and other nutrients key to development. To enable the cells to resemble slaughtered meat products, they are grown on scaffolds of gelatin or collagen, which are edible and provide structure for the future product. This ‘edible ink’ is crucial in providing stability, lest the meat end up with a mushy and unpleasant texture. Each cultivator tank is separated into a part; some are fat, some are meat, and some are connective tissue. Currently, all the components must be grown separately before being combined, limiting practical applications to some extent. 

Next, these cultures are fed a hypercharged mixture of everything they need to grow, develop and expand rapidly. In a matter of only days or weeks, they are ready to be harvested. Due to the technological difficulties in growing, say, a marbled steak (with fat and connective tissue intertwined with muscle fiber), most cultivated meat is sold in ground forms. Chicken nuggets or beef meatballs offer easy ways to combine the components in a way that looks appetizing. 

There are a few drawbacks with this technology, though with time manufacturers intend to move past these challenges. One issue is the nature of these cell cultivations. Because each component must be grown separately, it is difficult to produce the same types of meats consumers are used to; steaks, chicken thighs, etc. This applicational constraint means that, at least for now, there will be no lab-grown steak on the dinner table. Another problem is cost. The first cultivated hamburger cost over $300,000 to produce a decade ago. Manufacturers are

working to lower the cost, but printing edible scaffolds is expensive, which then must be passed along to future consumers. Some research has been done into plant-based inexpensive ‘ink,’ 3D printed into cheap scaffolding, but the industry still heavily relies on traditional gelatine and collagen scaffolding. Additionally, the environmental impact is massive, taking more energy per pound to produce than traditional slaughtered meat. Nevertheless, with investment in renewable energy sources, there is hope that this new wave of food tech represents a future of good food that’s also good for the planet. 

There is some pleasant news for those who want a lab-grown burger. The United States spends around $38 billion a year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries. With investment into cultivated meat on the same scale, the lab-grown industry has the potential to disrupt traditional farming practices entirely. Making the cost affordable to the average consumer is likely the biggest hurdle in the development of cultivated meat, so much work is being done to lower the price-and fast. Within a decade, slaughtered meat may be a thing of the past.


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