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Imagine the sheer enjoyment of a rare cooked chop or a tasty hamburger, without having to harm a single cow or pig? This is not such a far-fetched project as it sounds. On the contrary, it may be what the future holds in store for us: in fact, lab-created food is becoming more and more of a reality since it exploits the same techniques as those used to reproduce the cells of human organs. Hence the possibility to obtain synthetic meat without meat, cheese without cheese and peanuts suitable for allergy sufferers.
The origins of in vitro meat
The concept of in vitro meat has been around for a long time now. Since the early 70’s, great progress has been made in this direction thanks to numerous research projects – about thirty at present. In 2000, the NASA also started to take an interest in this field of research and has managed to produce synthetic meat from turkey cells. The first edible animal product to be created in vitro was a fish fillet served by the NSR/Tuoro Applied BioScience Research Consortium in 2002, while the first beef burger – produced from the protein-nourished stem cells of a cow – was presented and offered to members of the press by scientists from the University of Maastricht, Holland in August 2013. What about its flavour? Not as tasty as real meat but nonetheless meaty and obviously fat-free, which may be a failing in the case of some dishes but otherwise an advantage.
Work is in progress with regard to perfecting flavour and texture: the start-ups that have been quick to jump on the bandwagon – like the New York-based Modern Meadows company we have already told you about here – work in close collaboration with chefs. The production techniques of synthetic meat – also known as shmeat – were approved by the American Food and Drugs Administration as early as 2005. Food like this would not only prevent animals from enduring a miserable life and death, but would also have an enormously positive impact on the environment and would reduce climate change; it would also constitute a cornerstone of food safety and, in theory, minimize health risks.
From lab grown meat to Impossible burgers
Why are these products not yet available in supermarkets? The main reason is their high cost: at a price of 250,000 Euro, the version made from synthetic meat is still the world’s most expensive hamburger. According to the scientists who met up at the first International Symposium on Synthetic Meat held in mid-October, it will nevertheless be available on the market in the next 10 or 20 years at the latest. With regard to innovative techniques, however, some have gone even further to imagine a plant-based Impossible Cheeseburger: such is the mission of Impossible Foods, a start-up we reported on here, which is even backed by Bill Gates, engaged in producing plant-based meat that tastes and smells like the real thing and synthetic cheese that is similar to real cheese, made from nothing but plant-based ingredients. Moreover, the company claims that the first “veggie” cheeseburger will be on sale starting from next year.
Don't call it fake cheese
On the subject of dairy produce, research is going on to make so-called “vegan cheese” increasingly similar to what can be considered one of the most gourmet foods in the world. The Real Vegan Cheese Project exploits synthetic biology to pursue its objective: proteins whose genetic sequence is very similar to that of milk are inserted into baker’s yeast and then combined with water and vegetable oil to obtain a “real cheese” but without any of the ethical and nutritional implications of traditional cheese. Similar techniques are being used by other start-ups to produce real milk without milk or real eggs without eggs. In this case, however – unlike in vitro meat – the components are genetically modified. As in the case of peanuts whose allergy-causing genes have been “switched off”. These are all prototypes for the time being – and a glass of milk produced in this way would cost several hundreds of dollars – but not only is the process in course, it is soaring ahead. At great speed.