In the not too distant future we may have a non-beef steak, non-pork sausage, hamburger or non-meat patties on our tables. It is called synthetic or vegetable meat and they are sustainable alternatives to satisfy our palate as when we eat products based on animal origin.
Scientists and researchers are working to reduce the ecological footprint and suffering of animals. As we all know, intensive animal farming is one of the major sources of pollution along with the consumption of water (the production of a single hamburger requires 2,500 liters of water). Furthermore, the production of foods of animal origin requires a large use of food resources that is not compensated by the production of meat, milk and eggs for the market. Then there is the ethical issue of slaughtering and, finally, excessive quantities of red meat can seriously harm health.
We hear very often about synthetic or vegetable meat. Alternatives that could replace the real one, created in the laboratory and very close in flavor, texture and protein intake. A pioneer in this sector is the Beyond Meat company. In 2009 the path to recreate products similar to meat but of vegetable origin begins. The products are recreated with broad beans, rice, beet juice and, of course, vegetable oils to recreate the fat. Two years later, Patrick Brown, a former biochemistry researcher at Stanford University, arrives with the Impossible Burger, aimed at achieving a result that seems impossible: to challenge production costs, rules and eating habits.
The products of these two companies can be found in American fast food restaurants but also in Italian Burger King, in the Rebel Whopper menu. It is a meat burger but without meat, prepared in the laboratory through the biochemical transformation of vegetables. In detail, the meat is made by mixing coconut fat with potato and eras proteins, an organic compound containing iron that serves to replicate the effect of blood. The result? Very similar look, taste, scent and even the sizzle of when the meat is cooked on the plate.
Another example is the Italian biomedical researcher and engineer, Giuseppe Scionti, who presented with his startup Novameat in Barcelona the project of a 3D steak, made from plant-based materials such as peas, seaweed and beetroot. Using 3D printing you get a crossing of filaments that resemble those of an animal muscle.
The first hamburger produced in the laboratory was eaten in London in 2013. Thanks to the work of scientists at Masstricht University in the Netherlands, under the leadership of Mark Post, who created the meat from the stem cells of a cow and grew it to form muscle strips, then joined and flavored like real meat. The goal is to create tissues that contain omega 3 able to lower cholesterol, preventing the risks associated with cardiovascular disease.
In September 2019, beef was produced in space. The experiment carried out by the Russian station, in collaboration with an Israeli company, was based on the use of a 3D printer to produce biological tissue from cells first cultivated on our planet. Although the technique is still to be perfected, this result has demonstrated the possibility of producing meat directly in space. In December 2020, however, Singapore authorized the sale of synthetic chicken nuggets grown by the American Eat Just. In January 2021, “The Chicken” was inaugurated in Tel Aviv, the first restaurant with a menu based on meat grown in test tubes.
These are just a few examples of startups or researchers who are committed to finding useful alternatives to alleviate the damage caused to our planet by meat production. And if the battle on a substantial level was not won, the formal one. Brussels has rejected the request by companies in the sector to associate the term meat, hamburger, sausage or steak with products of plant origin.
Despite what one might think, most of the people who consume these products are not vegetarians or vegans, rather flexitarians, that is, those who replace animal proteins as much as possible with vegetable ones, or who are looking for a “healthier” alternative to beef or even those with a more environmentalist soul. For this reason, companies are trying to create products that resemble meat in all respects: to provide a sustainable and healthy food system.
What worries public opinion the most concern the possible repercussions on health. According to many nutritionists, synthetic meat has not been promoted with flying colors, as it sins for an excessive amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt. Another problem concerns production costs, which are still very high but could be reduced in the future thanks to the improvement of new techniques.
In an interview with MIT Tech Review, Bill Gates discussed all the initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Among these is the consumption of synthetic meat, at least in rich countries. An absurd proposition for meatlovers, but for the founder of Microsoft the alternatives to meat will continue to grow and improve. And this could be the end of the flesh as we know it.