Key points to remember
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently deemed meat cultured using animal cells safe for human consumption.
- Although these alternatives to traditionally produced animal meats are not yet available to consumers, the FDA’s decision is a key step in the process.
- Lab-grown options may offer similar nutritional benefits, but less environmental impact compared to conventionally produced animal protein.
Although you can’t get it in delis in the US right now, lab-grown meat is about to become a reality. In November 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that cultured meat is “safe for human consumption.”
For people who want to avoid conventionally processed meat but don’t necessarily want to be meatless, the emerging science of cultured meat might be the perfect fit. Meat can be grown in the lab using just a few cells taken from an animal.
Here’s what the experts are saying about the future of cultured or “lab-grown” meat.
What is lab-grown meat?
When you eat a steak, you are eating the muscle of a cow. When you eat chicken thighs, you are literally eating the muscle (and possibly the skin) of a chicken.
When alive and raised for meat, these animals likely consumed a lot of water, land, and food. Some animals also have other negative effects on the environment.
Cultured meat is different. It is not made by slaughtering an animal and cutting it into different cuts of meat. Instead, it’s made from cells taken from a living animal that can be processed into meat in a lab.
The cells are housed in a medium that contains the nutrients necessary for meat growth. Cells are kept in an environment that maintains the right temperature and level of oxygen for their multiplication. Through this process, tissues are formed which can be harvested once they have reached a sufficient size.
Although the end result looks like a raw piece of chicken, duck, or other meat that you would get by slaughtering and butchering, it only took a small number of cells from a still-living animal to be made.
There is also a limited amount of meat you can get from a single animal. Cells, on the other hand, can be reused to make more portions.
Is cultured meat vegan?
Lab-grown meat comes from muscle cells taken from living animals. Therefore, it is not “meatless” meat like vegetable proteins are.
For those concerned about animal welfare, cultured meat could be appealing because an animal does not need to be slaughtered to obtain the cells necessary for meat growth. That said, if someone does not want food from an animal under any circumstances, cultured meat would not fit their dietary preferences.
Is lab-grown meat safe to eat?
On November 16, the FDA ruled that cultured meat was safe for human consumption.
To be clear, the agency does not endorse or recommend that people eat cultured meat. Instead, the FDA used available evidence to determine that cultured meat can be safely sold to consumers.
At the end of November 2022, these meat products are not yet commercially available.
What are the benefits of eating lab-grown meat?
There are benefits to incorporating meat, especially lean meat, into a balanced diet. Chicken, beef, and fish contain high-quality, complete protein and many micronutrients (such as vitamin B12, iron, and choline). Some meats also contain essential fatty acids.
Lab-grown meat may look and even taste similar to its animal counterparts, but how will it perform nutritionally?
Brooke Whitney, senior communications associate at UPSIDE Foods, told Verywell that the nutrient profile of each cultured meat “will depend on the specific product and the company” that produces it.
According to Whitney, UPSIDE Foods chicken “contains fewer calories and less fat than an average cut of conventionally produced chicken.” Ultimately, Whitney said “the company’s goal is to provide consumers with meat with enhanced nutrient profiles.”
While the focus is on the similarity of cultured meat to traditionally made meat, there could also be some interesting differences.
For example, Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition, told Verywell that “lab-grown meat would likely contain fewer antibiotics and additives” than conventionally produced meat.
One of the most touted benefits of cultured meat is that making it would not have the same environmental impact as traditional meat production.
Raising cattle, chickens, pigs and other animals and then using that meat as food has an impact on the environment.
Studies have suggested that reducing our meat consumption could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their drastic effect on global warming and climate change.
According to the UPSIDE website, cultured meat is estimated to use 77% less water and 62% less land than conventionally raised meat.
Cultured meat would also save many animal lives, as a large amount of meat can be made from a small number of cells taken from a living animal. In the long term, this could also lead to a reduced carbon footprint.
The meat of the future?
You can’t grill a lab-grown steak in the United States yet, but cultured meat is already available to consumers in other parts of the world.
In 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat products (specifically, Good Meat chicken nuggets made by American company Eat Just).
Other countries may soon follow as the global list of cultured meat companies grows (eg Spain’s Biotech Foods and Britain’s Higher Steaks).
This all sounds promising, but there’s no guarantee that cultured meat will measure up nutritionally or have a significant positive effect on the environment.
“A recent study from 2020 showed that longer-term research is needed to determine the true environmental footprint of laboratory meat production and whether it is truly a sustainable alternative to conventional meat,” said Mitri said.
While the technology needed to bring lab-grown meat to your plate is there, and the FDA’s contribution has been a step forward in the regulatory process, we still have a lot to learn.
As Mitri said, “more research is still needed on the pros and cons [of cultivated meat], it may be the meat of the future. If the nutritional quality can remain intact and it is seen as a long-term sustainable alternative, it could become in demand, especially for those who support animal rights.
What this means for you
Cultured meat can be appealing if you are looking for an alternative to traditionally produced animal meat. You can’t buy “lab-grown” meat yet, but we might be a little closer to seeing it in grocery stores now that the FDA has declared it safe for human consumption.
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