Everything Can Be Meat

Recently, a photo of rice left me confused. The rice itself looked tasty enough—fluffy, well formed—but its oddly fleshy hue gave me the creeps. According to the scientists who’d developed it, each pink-tinged grain was seeded with muscle and fat cells from a cow, imparting a nutty, umami flavor.

In one sense, this “beef rice” was just another example of lab-grown meat, touted as a way to eat animals without the ethical and environmental impacts. Though not yet commercially available, the rice was developed by researchers in Korea as a nutrition-dense food that can be produced sustainably, at least more so than beef itself. Although it has a more brittle texture than normal rice, it can be cooked and served in the same way. Yet in another sense, this rice was entirely different. Lab-grown meat aims to replicate conventional meat in every dimension, including taste, nutrition, and appearance. Beef rice doesn’t even try.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Lab-grown meat, also widely known as cultivated meat, has long been heralded as the future of food. But so far, the goal of perfectly replicating meat as we know it—toothy, sinewy, and sometimes bloody—has proved impractical and expensive. Once-abundant funding has dried up, and this week, Florida moved toward becoming the first state to ban sales of cultivated meat. It seems unlikely that whole cuts of cultivated meat will be showing up on people’s plates anytime soon—but maybe something like beef rice could. The most promising future of lab-grown meat may not look like meat at all, at least as we’ve always known it.

The promise of cultivated meat is that you can have your steak and eat it too. Unlike the meatless offerings at your grocery store, cultivated meat is meat—just created without killing any animals. But the science just isn’t there yet. Companies have more or less figured out the first step, taking a sample of cells from a live animal or egg and propagating them in a tank filled with a nutrient-rich broth. Though not cheaply: By one estimate, creating a slurry of cultivated cells costs $17 a pound or more to produce.

The next step has proved prohibitively challenging: coaxing that sludge of cells to mature into different types—fat, muscle, connective tissue—and arranging them in a structure resembling a solid cut of meat. Usually, the cells need a three-dimensional platform to guide their growth, known as a scaffold. “It’s something that is very easy to get wrong and hard to get right,” Claire Bomkamp, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit supporting meat alternatives, told me. So far, a few companies have served up proofs of concept: In June, the United States approved the sale of cultivated chicken from Upside Foods and Good Meat. However it is virtually impossible to come by now.

The basic science of lab-grown meat can be used for more than just succulent chicken breasts and medium-rare steaks. Cells grown in a tank function essentially like ground meat, imparting a meaty flavor and mouthfeel to whatever they are added to, behaving more like an ingredient or a seasoning than a food product. Hybrid meat products, made by mixing a small amount of cultivated-meat cells with other ingredients, are promising because they would be more cost-effective than entire lab-grown steaks or chicken breasts but meatier than purely plant-based meat.

Already, the start-up SciFi Foods is producing what has been described as a “fatty meat paste” that is intended to be mixed with plant-based ingredients to make burgers. Only small amounts are needed to make the burgers beefy; each costs less than $10 to make, according to the company—still considerably more than a normal beef patty, but the prices should come down over time. Maybe it sounds weird, but that’s not so different from imitation crab—which doesn’t contain much or any crab at all. A similar premise underlies the plant-based bacon laced with cultivated pork fat that I tried last year. Was it meat? I’m not sure. Did it taste like it? Absolutely.

Meat can be so much more than what we’ve always known. “We don’t have to make meat the same way that it’s always come out of an animal,” Bomkamp said. “We can be a little bit more expansive in what our definition of meat is.” Beef rice, which essentially uses rice as a miniature scaffold to grow cow cells, falls into this category. It isn’t particularly meaty—only 0.5 percent of each grain is cow—but the scientists who developed it say the proportion could change in future iterations. It’s framed as a way to feed people in “underdeveloped countries, during war, and in space.”

Eventually, cultivated meat could impart a whiff of meatiness to blander foods, creating new, meat-ish products in the process that are more sustainable than regular meat and more nutritious than plants. Beef rice is one option; meat grown on mushroom roots is in development. Even stranger foods are possible. Bomkamp envisions using the technology to make thin sheets of seafood—combining elements of salmon, tuna, and shrimp—to wrap around a rainbow roll of sushi. In this scenario, cultivated meat probably won’t save the planet from climate change and animal suffering. “It wouldn’t serve its original function of being a direct replacement for commercial meat,” Daniel Rosenfeld, who studies perceptions of cultivated meat at UCLA, told me. But at the very least, it could provide another dinner option.

Of course, it’s in the interest of the cultivated-meat industry to suggest that cultivated meat isn’t just outright doomed. No doubt some vegetarians would cringe at the thought, as would some dedicated carnivores. But considering how much meat Americans eat, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which cultivated cells satisfy people searching for a new kind of meat product. Imagine the salad you could make with chicken cells grown inside arugula, or bread baked with bacon-infused wheat. But should those prove too difficult to produce, I’d happily take a bowl of beef rice, in all its flesh-tinged glory.