Growing Meat Without Animals ... Would You Eat It?

meatScientists have figured out how to grow tiny nuggets of lab meat and say it will one day be possible to produce steaks in vats, sans any livestock.

Pork chops or burgers cultivated in labs could eliminate contamination problems, as well as address environmental concerns that come with industrial livestock farms.

However, such research opens up strange and perhaps even disturbing possibilities once considered only the realm of science fiction.

Currently, bioengineers are growing nerve, heart and other tissues in labs. Although such research is meant to help treat patients, biomedical engineers suggest growing skeletal muscle in labs -- the kind people typically think of as the meat they eat -- could also help feed the rising demand for meat worldwide.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Now I realize that a large percentage of my audience is not at all interested in eating any meat at all. And for about one in three of you reading this that is absolutely appropriate as you are carb nutritional types. But if you are a protein nutritional type and avoid eating meat ... that can be a disaster.

Some of the sickest patients I saw in practice where those who were protein types that were avoiding meat. Even though they had incredibly healthy raw food vegetarian diets, they simply were not healthy.

This even happened with a friend of mine who is a strong protein type, and wound up having some significant health challenges as a result of avoiding meat. She was one of the few people I knew who actually enjoyed eating raw liver (one of the strongest protein foods), and she felt enormously better after eating it. <o:p></o:p>

New Protein Foods

But getting back to the article, once you get over the issue of whether or not you are going to eat animal proteins the next issue is what source you will select.

Scientists have been toying with the idea of creating “test tube meat” for years now. In 2006, Dutch researchers thought they’d have ground artificial meat suitable for burgers and sausages by 2009 -- but to my knowledge it has not come to fruition.

Last year, animal rights group PETA even announced it would award $1 million to the first person to come up with a “commercially viable in vitro meat by 2012.”

There are some clear benefits of “test tube” meat, particularly if it were used to reduce or replace the filthy and inhumane factory farms that right now are responsible for producing the vast majority of meat in the United States.

Growing skeletal muscle in labs, the researchers say, could:

  • Reduce factory farms and killing livestock for food

  • Cut down on food-borne diseases and germs, such as salmonella and mad cow disease

  • Benefit the environment immensely. Livestock generate 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all the vehicles on Earth, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Still, there is something unsettling about scientists growing fake food in a lab … and so far the track-record for altered foods, such as genetically modified varieties, is not anywhere near a good one.

How is Test-Tube Meat Made?

Artificially grown meat depends on stem cells, and specifically satellite cells, which are the muscle stem cells that help repair and regenerate muscle tissue.

What makes stem cells so special is their potential to develop into many different cell types. When a stem cell divides, it either becomes another type of cell, such as a muscle cell or brain cell, or it remains a stem cell. Further, these cells act as an internal repair system in many types of tissues, dividing a seemingly infinite number of times to replenish other cells.

TIME magazine featured a great explanation of how these cells can also be used to grow artificial meat:

“Scientists biopsy stem or satellite muscle cells from a livestock animal, such as a chicken, cow or pig. The cells are then placed in a nutrient-rich medium where they divide and multiply, and are then attached to a scaffolding structure and put in a bioreactor to grow.

In order to achieve the texture of natural muscle, the cells must be physically stretched and flexed, or exercised, regularly. After several weeks, voila, you have a thin layer of muscle tissue that can be harvested and processed into ground beef, chicken or pork, depending on the origin of the cells.

But don't expect to see big, juicy in vitro steaks anytime soon; the technology has not yet been able to synthesize blood vessels or grow large, three-dimensional pieces of meat.”

What are the Risks?

Aside from the fact that lab-grown meat is unappetizing at best, only time will tell what health effects this man-made meat will reveal.

It's common knowledge that the less processed a food, say an apple, is the better. Eat one apple whole, and you will be getting a decent amount of nutrients and fiber that work together synergistically.

Take that same apple and extract its juice or turn it into some type of apple-flavored baked good or confection and you have another animal altogether -- one that will not be nearly as healthy as the original, and really doesn't bear much of a resemblance to it at all.

I am very skeptical that artificial meat will provide the same nutrients and have the same effects on your body as a natural piece of meat -- or that it will be completely free from some sort of side effects.

Artificial lab-grown meat is just the latest of a number of high-tech foods, many of which turned out to be disasters:

The other problem holding up the technology currently is the cost. TIME reported in 2008 that it would cost $1 million to turn out a 250-gram piece of beef! While scientists continue to say they can develop technology to create lab-grown meat that would sell for about double the current cost, at least for chicken, it still appears the technology to do so is many years out.

The Healthiest Sources of Meat for You and Your Family

There are options available to you right now that offer many of the same benefits that artificial meat is touting, such as a reduced environmental impact, lower risk of food-borne illness and more humane treatment of animals.

For safer, healthier and humanely raised meat, your best bet is always to purchase your beef directly from a trusted rancher whose farming practices you’re familiar with. Supporting local farmers and ranchers can go a long way toward improving the entire food system, and more importantly, your personal health.

Buying your beef directly from the farm is an even better option than getting it from upscale, natural health markets like Whole Foods, as even these stores have had meat recalls in recent months.

Next, you will want to find and purchase grass-fed and finished beef, ideally. Grass-finished beef has a minimal risk of contamination compared to grain-fed beef due to the difference in stomach pH in the two diets.

Grain-based diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, which the E.coli bacteria need to survive. And grass-finished animals live in clean grass pastures where higher levels of sanitation greatly reduce the risk as well.

Grass-fed beef is also lower in fat than regular beef and, more importantly, contains higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer-fighting fatty acid. Grass-fed animals have from three to five times more CLA than grain-fed animals.

While I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture -- this page is filled with resources for high-quality produce and meats in your area.

Also, there are a number of grass-fed beef ranchers in the United States that offer safe, high-quality meats.