Plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger are capturing a growing share of the market. Consumers are attracted to these products for a variety of reasons. Some believe that plant-based diets are a way to reduce their risk of disease. Others are concerned about the environmental impact of animal agriculture or the welfare of the animals themselves. A lot of people who enjoy meat or value its nutritional profile are nonetheless reducing their consumption.
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But new technology may soon deliver the best of both worlds to our plates: real meat that can be produced without using any animals. Paul Shapiro recently joined me on the Nutrition Diva podcast to talk about this brave new world of meat without animals.
Paul is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.
Below are some highlights from our conversation. Please click on the audio player to hear our entire interview.
Nutrition Diva: Let’s start by clarifying for everybody what we’re not talking about here. We’re not talking about taking gluten and pea protein and soybeans and fashioning them into a darn good imposter for hamburger. We’re talking about something very different.
This is a way of producing meat that uses far less land, far less water, and [creates] far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Paul Shapiro: That’s exactly right. When we talk about clean meats, we’re not talking about a meat substitute. We’re talking about real meat that is simply divorced from the process of raising and slaughtering an animal. So instead of having to go through that months- or years-long process, a clean meat simply involves taking a tiny biopsy from an animal, maybe the size of a Sesame seed.
And within that little biopsy, there are millions of cells that when you put them into a cultivator outside of the animal’s body makes them think that they still are in the body. And they do exactly what they would do if they were in the body, which is to produce muscle, which of course is what we eat as meat.
So this is a way of producing meat that uses far less land, far less water, [and creates] far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, spares animals the cruelty of being raised on factory farms and going to slaughterhouses. So there’s a big advantage to producing meat in this kind of way.
ND: Can you tell us more about this cultivator?
PS: We use cultivators for all types of things, for both food and medicine today. As an example, before the 1990s, virtually all of the insulin that diabetics took was coming from the crushed pancreas is of pigs and of cattle. However, humans figured out how to grow real human insulin in a cultivator. And now that’s what diabetics take and they get a much cleaner, safer product. And that’s only one example among many.
You can also produce all types of animal products without needing the animals.
Imagine a beer brewery—steel tanks where there’s fermentation occurring within them. You take brewer’s yeast, you feed it sugar, and it ends up producing alcohol. If you take baker’s yeast, you feed it sugar, you get CO2. You can use other types of microbes and create human products like insulin. But you can also produce all types of other animal products without needing the animals.
Companies can now brew cells from animals and grow actual meat that doesn’t involve the type of cruelty and environmental degradation that’s associated with the factory farming of animals today. It’s far more efficient and far cleaner. It’s much better for the planet to produce this type of meat because it takes an enormous amount of land, water, and other resources to get meat onto our plate.
ND: Is there always a microbe involved that is generating this tissue or these cells?
PS: There are different ways that you can do it. One method involves taking what are called satellite cells. These are the cells that we have in our bodies whose only task is to produce more muscle. So if you do a hard workout, you have micro-tears in your muscle, they go to work and they repair you. If you get bruised, they go to work and they repair. They create fresh muscle for you. And animals have the same satellite cells in them, too.
You can create really succulent, delicious meat. And you don’t have to worry whether it’s going to give you salmonella or Campylobacter or e-coli.
If you can take those tiny microscopic satellite cells and put them into a cultivator where it has the same body temperature or the same pH and so on, with the same nutrients, they do what they would normally do inside the animal’s body—they create more muscle.
There are other methods as well, but that’s a popular one. And you can create really succulent, delicious meat. And you don’t have to worry whether it’s going to give you salmonella or Campylobacter or e-coli because those are intestinal pathogens and you’re not growing intestines at all. You’re just growing the meat that people want to eat.
ND: But meat is not just protein; it’s a combination of protein and fat. So those satellite cells can actually generate a meat product that has some balance of fat and protein?
PS: Those particular cells won’t, but there are a number of startups that are producing actual animal fat in a similar way. In fact, it’s a lot easier to culture fat cells than muscle cells. But you could also add plant-based fat to the animal muscle and create products that are actual meat with actual animal muscle, but that have healthier sources of fat.
So part of it would involve making products that just mimic the animal products that are on the market today. The other would be creating products that are actually better new products.
ND: So we’re not at the point where we can grow a T-bone steak in a cultivator. If we want to have a meat product with some sort of fat, we have to recombine it with a product from another process.
PS: You could, but we’re still in the early phases of this industry. When I wrote the book Clean Meat, which came out in 2018, there were about a half dozen startups that were trying to do this. Now there are close to 80, and they’ve raised collectively hundreds of millions of dollars. None of them have really started commercializing their products yet. But they will, and that technology will continue to advance. So while, sure, we can’t produce a T-bone today—and we’re talking more about things like hamburgers and chicken nuggets and fish sticks in the future—that may be possible.
ND: How close are we to having this in stores at some sort of affordable level?
The world’s first cultivated burger was debuted in 2013 with a price tag of $300,000.
PS: The world’s first cultivated burger was debuted in 2013 with a price tag of $300,000. And today, the makers of that burger say that they’re getting down closer to well under a hundred dollars a pound. So you can see a dramatically, dramatically rapid decrease in the price of these products. But there is a bigger barrier for commercialization than just price and that’s government regulation.
In the US, the FDA is in charge of regulating cell-cultured products, whereas the USDA is in charge of regulating meat. However, in this case, you have meat that is being produced via cell culture. So, who regulates it? The FDA and the USDA have said that they are going to jointly regulate this.
It’s still going to be some time before you see clean meat sitting on Costco or Walmart shelves.
Other countries like China and Singapore, are moving fast to allow this type of product to come onto the market as well. So far, nobody has given it the green light and that’s likely to change in the near future. But it’s still going to be some time before you see clean meat sitting on Costco or Walmart shelves.
Far more likely is that it will be in certain higher-end restaurants where it will be a novel experience for people who have the money to be able to afford it. Almost like a personal computer was when it first came out—it was something that was expensive and it was cool to have. Now, we all have in our pockets computers that make them look completely ancient and obsolete. So there will be a similar trajectory here to that.
ND: Is there similar technology and advancement going for other animal products, for example, eggs or dairy products or cheese?
PS: We’re getting very far with it, in fact, maybe further than with meat. Some companies like Perfect Day are using microbes to produce whey protein. They are selling an animal-free real dairy Ice cream using whey protein produced through their fermentation process.
ND: It’s certainly amazing how far this technology has come. Thank you for this inside look into what’s happening in this industry!
To learn more about how the clean meat industry is producing meat without animals, check out Paul’s book, Clean Meat, or his TEDx talks. And if you’d like to sample some animal-free, real dairy ice cream, you can order some through the mail or find a store near you at Brave Robot.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about lab-grown meat and dairy. Is this something you’d be eager to try? Or are you grossed out by the thought of brewing meat in tanks? Join the conversation on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.