Steakholder Foods

What is synthetic beef?

Synthetic beef has recently come to the public’s attention with the publication of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. In his book, Gates lays out his theory on how to mitigate climate change and lists steps he believes the world should take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Gates, all rich countries should switch to 100% synthetic beef. This can be achieved, Gates suggests, through behavioral change or regulation.

But what is synthetic beef exactly? Often mistakenly grouped synonymously with cultured or cultivated beef, the term refers to 100% plant-based, often vegan-friendly meat substitute created to have a similar look, taste and texture as beef. It tries to come as close as possible to resembling beef in taste and texture, but it ain’t beef. 

How is synthetic beef made?

Synthetic beef is typically made with proteins (such as beans or peas), fats (coconut or canola oils), carbs (potato starch), and minerals with flavorings, such as beet juice, to create appetizing patties, for example, that sizzle and resemble beef in texture and appearance. One of the industry’s leading synthetic beef producers blends peas, beans, and brown rice with natural fats like coconut oil. Other variations include combinations of soy and potatoes. Synthetic beef products may also include sausages, meatballs, and beef jerky.

 

What is the difference between synthetic beef and cultured or cultivated meat?

While synthetic beef is produced from 100% plant-based ingredients, cultured, or cultivated meat (also known as lab-grown meat), is created using animal stem cells ethically harvested from cows and grown under ideal conditions in a nutrient-rich cell medium inside bioreactors. The cells grow, multiply and differentiate into muscle and fat cells which then develop into muscle and fat tissue. The process from stem cell to final product is humane as it avoids the need to raise and slaughter animals.

When did synthetic beef come about?

Meat alternatives have actually been around for hundreds of years, the best known example perhaps being tofu, a protein-rich bean curd derived from soybeans. Legend has it that tofu was developed in China in the second century. Tofu is a versatile alternative protein source that picks up the flavors of other ingredients. Tofu gained mainstream popularity in America in the late 1960s.

 

The beginning of cultured meat

According to most experts, cultured meat first appeared in 2000 with a NASA-funded research project led by Morris Benjaminson at Touro College in New York. They produced lab-grown fish from muscle cells harvested from a goldfish.

But the first significant breakthrough occurred in 2013 when Mark Post from Maastricht University developed the first cultured beef burger patty. It was created from more than 20,000 thin strands of muscle tissue at a cost of more than $300,000 and took two years to develop. In the years that followed, a handful of companies began to focus on cultured meat, while others continued advancing and developing the synthetic meat industry.

 

How much does synthetic beef cost to manufacture?

According to a new report by the Good Food Institute (GFI), there is still a significant cost gap between plant-based, or synthetic meat, and real meat. The average cost of a pound of beef is $3.95 while a pound of Beyond Meat, for example, is $7.79 a pound. GFI reports that price parity could happen far sooner than expected – by 2023.  

The cost of cultured meat

Cultured meat has come a long way since Mark Post’s $300,000 burger. Currently, dozens of companies are working on low-cost lab-grown meat. While there’s still a ways to go, the cost has come down considerably. As the scale of manufacturing improves and the cell growth medium and other materials become less expensive, price parity will be achieved. GFI contends, based on supported studies, that cultured meat could be cost-competitive with multiple forms of slaughtered animal meat by 2030.

Is synthetic beef genetically modified?

To make “fake” meat as real as possible, plant-based meat companies rely on genetic engineering. Used for a variety of applications, GMO techniques have been increasingly effective in the food industry, and specifically with meat substitutes.

Cultured meat can be developed with non-GMO processes. While a few cultured meat companies have revealed that they are developing non-GMO products, the vast majority of the industry currently uses GMO to improve efficiency and effectiveness, depending on each company’s particular approach. 

Is synthetic beef healthier than real beef?

Compared to ground beef, synthetic burgers offer similar amounts of calories, protein, iron, and other micronutrients. The Impossible Burger, for example, adds extra zinc and B vitamins of which beef also boasts high amounts. But for all their attempts at mimicking the real-beef experience, alternative meat products must be taken with a grain of salt (pun intended).

 

Cultured (or lab grown) meat has the same nutritional contents as conventional meat. But cultured meat, which is developed in a sterile, highly controlled environment, has a host of advantages over its conventional cousin. When meat is grown from cells, you can mitigate or completely avoid these common problems associated with factory farming and conventional meat production:

  • Chronic disease caused by harmful cholesterol and saturated fat. Both plant-based beef products and conventional beef are high in saturated fats and can raise cholesterol levels, leading to chronic illness. When meat is grown from cells, it is possible to control the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol without sacrificing taste.
  • Antibiotic resistance. Livestock raised on factory farms are given antibiotics to either prevent or treat illness in crowded, unhealthy conditions. But this practice can pose a risk of generating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals which can then lead to the same potential risk to humans when animal meat enters the food supply. When you remove the need to farm animals like with plant-based meat and cultured meat, the problem with antibiotics goes away.
  • Growth hormones. The economic benefit of growth hormone use in factory farms is well known. What is less well known, and still up for debate, is the health impact of such hormone use on consumers of meat. While the research is still inconclusive, it is still advisable to stay away from growth hormones in animal meat. Today, your options would be to buy only hormone-free organic meat or plant-based alternatives.
  • Zoonotic diseases. Global meat production has, over the years, been a cause of animal-to-human transmission of diseases. In fact, 22% of foodborne diseases are linked to global meat production. Examples include the African swine fever and the highly pathogenic avian influenza. With lab-grown meat in highly controlled, sanitary environments, the risk of foodborne disease is expected to be significantly lower – and possibly negligible.

 

When will synthetic steaks and burgers be in restaurants?

Synthetic meat is already widely available in restaurants. Cultured meat is another story. The two main factors holding back mass production of cultured meat for restaurants are the cost of production and regulatory approvals. Original forecasts claimed that cultured meat would be widely approved by 2021. 2021 has come and gone, and so far, there is still only one place in the world where consumers can order cultured meat on a menu.

In December 2020, Singapore authorized the sale of lab-grown meat, making it the first time cultured meat has been licensed for sale anywhere on the planet  In the same year, in Ness Ziona, Israel, the world’s first lab-grown meat “restaurant” was opened, offering the public a chance to taste (free of charge) their cultured chicken dishes. Cultured meat is expected to become available in a number of other countries in the next one to three years, depending on different time frames for regulatory approval.

Cultured meat is the future

The cost of producing cultured meat is dropping all the time, though admittedly, we are still years away from the vision of cultured meat being widely available and affordable for the masses. But the payoff for the environment and food security is huge, which is why Steakholder Foods, formerly MeaTech 3D, is focused on perfecting its unique 3D bioprinting technology and cultured meat production process. Steakholder Foods technology will be able to generate high-quality whole cuts of meat in a fraction of the time it takes to produce conventional meat.

And though it may take a little more time before our whole-cut meat products hit shelves and restaurants, you may sooner be able to buy our hybrid products made with plant-based ingredients and cultured meat which offer the signature flavors, aromas and texture of real, savory meat.

Bon Appetit!