The Test Tube Burger?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Grown from cattle stem cells and dubbed the “cultured beef burger,” the world’s first lab-grown burger costs $330,000 and took five years to develop
  • As for taste, one of the tasters called the test-tube burger “close to meat” while another described it as an “animal protein cake”
  • When plants, animals or cells are artificially created in a lab using experimental technologies, literally anything can happen; the health effects and nutritional quality of test-tube meat are unknown
  • While some claim lab-grown meat could solve world hunger, others believe such technologies take resources away from more realistic solutions, like sustainable agriculture and grass-fed beef

By Dr. Mercola

Scientists have been toying with the idea of creating “test tube meat” for years now, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that the first lab-made burger was unveiled... and tasted.

Grown from cattle stem cells and dubbed the “cultured beef burger,” the creation cost $330,000 (funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, reportedly out of a concern for animal welfare) and took five years to develop.

Are Test-Tube Burgers the Future of Food?

Lab-grown meat is being hailed as the future of food that could help feed the world without the environmentally damaging (and inhumane) concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce most meat today. Clearly, there are some benefits, such as:

  • Reduced CAFOs and killing livestock for food
  • Cut down on food-borne diseases and germs, such as salmonella and mad cow disease
  • Benefit the environment immensely. CAFOs contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — more than the entire global transportation industry. CAFOs also cause deforestation and draining of wetlands, and significant pollution to waterways

The cultured meat would also be easy to tweak in terms of flavor, as stem cells can develop into fat or muscle, allowing researchers to alter the fat content of the burgers. As for the world’s first test-tube burger, cells from two organically raised cows were put into a nutrient solution where they developed into muscle tissue and grew into strands of meat.

Close to 20,000 strands of ‘meat’ were needed to make the five-ounce patty, which was colored with red beet juice and saffron to help it appear more like real meat (the test-tube burger was yellowish in color).

So How Did It Taste?

You can see the taste-testers reactions for yourself in the video above. While not entirely unappealing, you can tell that there’s room for improvement. One of the tasters called the lab-made burger, which was seasoned with salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs, “close to meat” while another described it as an “animal protein cake.”

It will likely be decades before lab-grown meat enters the commercial market, but even then taste is far from the only matter of concern. What about its nutritional content… or safety?

Test-Tube Meat is Unprecedented … What About Safety?

There is a tendency in food regulation to assume man-made foods are the same as their natural counterparts. We’ve seen this frequently with genetically engineered (GE) foods, which while being labeled as ‘substantially equivalent’ are now turning out to be very different from natural varieties.

Take, for instance, milk from cows treated with a synthetic, genetically engineered growth hormone called rBGH. The synthetic rBGH milk differs from natural milk nutritionally, pharmacologically, immunologically, and hormonally; along with causing health problems in the cows, it is linked to cancer in humans.

A 2012 nutritional analysis of GE versus non-GE corn also showed shocking differences in nutritional content, with the non-GE corn containing 437 times more calcium, 56 times more magnesium, and seven times more manganese than GE corn.1

New Zealand researchers created a cloned genetically engineered cow that produces milk without an allergy-causing protein called BLG, the genetic modification reduced levels of BLG protein in the milk to undetectable levels, but it more than doubled concentrations of caseins, other milk proteins that are also linked to allergy, addiction and autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes.

When plants, animals or cells are exposed to foreign DNA or created in a lab using experimental technologies, literally anything can happen. This became clear when Daisy, the cloned GE cow, was unexpectedly born without a tail (and who knows what else might be amiss that hasn’t yet been uncovered). Man-made foods clearly have some obvious, and some certainly not-so-obvious, differences from natural foods, which makes the idea that test-tube meat would be the same as that from natural sources a long shot.

As the Star Tribune reported:2

“If the product is ever ready for market, national food authorities will likely require data proving the lab meat is safe; there is no precedent. Some experts said officials might regulate the process used to make such meat, similar to how they monitor beer and wine production.”

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Is This the Ultimate in Processed Meat?

Although it has many appealing technological benefits, I am very skeptical that lab-grown meat will provide the same nutritional benefits as traditionally grown meat. Additionally, I have concerns that it will not be completely free from some sort of unanticipated side effects (although, CAFO meat is not likely to be a much healthier alternative…). TIME magazine featured a great explanation of how stem cells are used to grow artificial meat, and there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it:3

“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.”

Grass-Fed Meat: The Real Solution to World Hunger?

Test-tube meat is rather unappetizing, brings up unprecedented safety and nutrition questions and, according to some, may not be a miracle solution for world hunger after all. As reported in The Atlantic:4

“'There is enough food in the world today to feed every adult 2000+ calories per day,' [said] Emelie Peine, an assistant professor of international economics at the University of Puget Sound. 'I think the question is not whether there is enough meat in the world and whether it is affordable, but rather, how are we using our agricultural resources, who benefits, and at what cost to our health and our environment?"

The connection between high-tech food production techniques and hunger happens, [Joshua] Muldavin, [a professor of human geography at Sarah Lawrence College] thinks, because the people behind it "need to find ways to legitimate ongoing investments in this form of technology. I think that's a disservice to people who are working on those issues in more realistic ways. This just reinforces the notion that hunger is all about abundance.'”

One such realistic solution is grass-fed beef, which represents a sought-after solution to unsustainable agricultural practices – one that could not only drastically reduce pollution but also produce a nutritionally superior meat. Contrary to popular arguments, CAFOs are not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces.

Grass is a cow’s natural diet, and when raised on a ‘salad bar’ of natural grasses, rotated with other complementary animals like chickens and turkeys for sanitation, the system is sustainable, non-polluting and very profitable. For now, seeking out grass-fed beef, ideally from a small local farmer, is the healthiest, most humane and most sustainable option. You can learn more about truly sustainable farming methods in the video with farmer Joel Salatin below.

Total Video Length: 48:03
Download Interview Transcript