The Main Reason Lab-Grown Meat Won’t Match Real Steaks | Sam Westreich, PhD
Like in life, we’re just too detached
It’s a sci-fi dream reminiscent of The Jetsons, or The Fifth Element; some kind of machine that produces food out of nothing. And not just food – meat, savory and delicious steaks, chicken and pork, all without ever having to go through the dirty business of raising and slaughtering an animal.
And in the past two decades, we’ve come a long way from tofu and tofurky. There have been two avenues of research into replacing traditional meat:
- Get rid of the animal completely and replace it with a herbal product.
- Grow animal cells for the meat we need, but don’t grow the rest of the animal.
There has been a lot of progress on approach #1 – think popular meat substitutes like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Gardein and others that have become commonplace in grocery stores.
Approach #2, on the other hand, lags behind. In the old days, I’ve written about some of the other challenges with cultured meat, such as the amount of storage in the growth tank and the nutrients needed.
But either way, there’s a big problem – a reason why we see burger patties but no steaks, chicken nuggets but no chicken breasts.
It’s all about connection, especially connective tissue.
A steak is more than muscle cells
When you have the opportunity to taste a piece of meat, take a moment to try cutting it in one direction rather than the perpendicular direction. These directions are often described in recipes as cutting “with” or “against the grain” of the meat.
(You generally want to cut the meat against the grain, to make it more tender and easier to chew.)
But what is the “grain” of meat? Turns out it’s the muscle fibers of the meat; they are all relatively parallel to each other, like a pile of rods stacked on top of each other.
Each muscle fiber in meat is made up of muscle cells, but each fiber is separated from the others by a sheath that surrounds it. This sheath is made of collagen, making it the most common protein in the body. Collagen is used in connective tissues, it is found in our bones, tendons and cartilage, and is part of what keeps our skin elastic and elastic (hence why it is often marketed in skin creams). beauty).
In muscle, collagen helps anchor each fiber to bone attachment points, so muscle cells can pull tight as they contract. There is more collagen in the most used muscles; your biceps will have more collagen sheaths than the muscle around your ribs.
When we cook a steak, we break down this collagen. When heated, it turns into gelatin, adding moisture and tenderness to the meat. You can also tenderize a steak, which helps physically break down the collagen sheaths around each muscle fiber.
OK! Great. How does this relate to making a realistic fake steak?
Lab-grown meat cells are sheathless
The biggest problem with fake meat is that while we can create a product that mimics the texture and taste of muscle cells, we don’t yet have the 3D layout of the components.
The protein products used in plant-based meats are just that – proteins, not whole cells. They’ll taste like real meat (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on who you ask), but they lack the cellular structure.
And it would be difficult for us to make fake muscle fibers. The average muscle fiber is about 0.1 millimeters wide, roughly the same thickness as a strand of hair. For length, the long way, they run the full length of the muscle, which means they can measure up to 30 centimeters.
Even though we create long strands of hair-like fibers out of fake meat products, we also need to coat them with collagen. Collagen is an animal product; it is not found in plants. This means that you cannot use it and still call your meat a vegetarian product.
What about our lab-grown meat cells? Growing muscle cells in a tank?
Again, we come to the question of structure. Muscle cells, when free floating in a liquid solution, do not naturally form fibers. They will remain more amoeba-like, not attached to tendon anchor points as they would be in a living creature.
Most lab-grown meat products are still in development as research teams work to reduce the cost per pound to produce. (They have a lot of problems to solve.) But most of them don’t seem to be looking to add collagen to their product yet; instead, they try to compete with ground meat products, such as hamburgers.
It’s an easier product to produce, sure, but that means we probably won’t see a real lab-grown steak anytime soon.
How about 3D printing a steak?
Ah, 3D printing, what can’t it solve? So far I’ve been able to resist the techie urge to buy a printer, but they’re so appealing. Print things in plastic, metal… what about food? Could we print meat with a 3D printer, in order to build the internal structure we need?
Well, yes and no. Some companies, such as Redefine Meat, create “steaks” by using a 3D printer to create a three-dimensional meat product, complete with fat and marbling.
However, a 3D printer cannot produce strands thin enough to mimic real muscle fiber, let alone add the collagen sheath of a distinct substance. (Also, building an entire muscle from these fibers, one at a time, would take a long time to print.) Instead, the meat produced here is more of a pixelated version of meat, like a rough approximation of the content without the fine-grained detail.
It’s hard to find many reviews dealing specifically with the texture of Redefine Meat’s steak product, although they held a few private tastings and it was described as “delicious” and “accurate in flavor.” It’s likely to taste on point – but I’d also bet the texture still won’t match a steak and will feel more like meatloaf in the mouth.
(By the way, if Redefine Meat finds this, I’ll be happy to try your product and update this article after coming to my own conclusions! Let me know when it’s available in California!)
Bottom Line: Fake Meat and Tank-Cultured Meat Have the Muscle, Not the Structure
Muscles are complex. They are made up of both muscle cells and additional protein structures, with the proteins wrapping like a sheath around each individual muscle fiber. The collagen protein envelopes soften when the meat is cooked, but the fibers remain intact, providing the “grit” we cut and taste in a piece of cooked meat.
Most fake meat companies have been focused on getting the taste right, while tank-grown meat companies are still trying to bring the price down per batch to levels where it’s economically viable to produce per batch. compared to normal cattle. Until now, most of them have not paid attention to reproducing the texture of meat…
…and for now, there’s probably not much point in doing so. Between burgers, hot dogs, ground meat crumbles and nuggets, there’s plenty of market share up for grabs in the unstructured meat category.
But don’t count on seeing a fake meat steak, with fake muscle fibers, indistinguishable from the real thing. At least not for a few years.
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