Artificial Meat and the Importance of Fat

by Reihan Salam

Tom Foster reports on new developments in the world of meat substitutes. One start-up, Beyond Meat, has devised a chicken substitute derived from soy and pea proteins and amaranth that requires 1.1 pounds of ingredients and 2 liters of water to yield a pound of chicken-like proten as opposed to 7.5 pounds of dry feed and 30 liters of water to produce the real thing:

The ability to efficiently create meat, or something sufficiently meat-like, will become progressively more important in coming years because humanity may be reaching a point when there’s not enough animal protein to go around. The United Nations expects the global population to grow from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Also, as countries such as China and India continue to develop, their populations are adopting more Western diets. Worldwide the amount of meat eaten per person nearly doubled from 1961 to 2007, and the UN projects it will double again by 2050. 

In other words, the planet needs to rethink how it gets its meat. Brown is addressing the issue by supplying a near-perfect meat analogue, but he is not alone in reinventing animal products. Just across town, Modern Meadow uses 3-D printers and tissue engineering to grow meat in a lab. The company already has a refrigerator full of lab-grown beef and pork; in fact, the company’s co-founder, Gabor Forgacs, fried and ate a piece of engineered pork onstage at a 2011 TED talk. Another scientist, Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is also using tissue engineering to produce meat in a lab. In August, he served an entire lab-grown burger to two diners on a London stage as a curious but skeptical crowd looked on. 

Foster warns that current meat production technologies are highly resource-intensive and wasteful. That may well be true. My main concern is that the pioneers of new bio-assembly techniques have thus far been ignoring the central importance of fat, though Foster suggests that this is changing:

Modern Meadow’s current product is hardly even recognizable as meat; it lacks blood and fat, which are responsible for most of actual meat’s color, flavor, and juicy texture. Karoly Jakab shows me a couple of the samples he’s storing in the lab refrigerator: They look like tiny beige-gray sausages—fully grown, rolled-up versions of the Band-Aid I saw coming out the printer—about the size of an infant’s pinkie finger. 

To make the meat more appealing, Modern Meadow has enlisted the Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, whose restaurant, Moto, has become an icon of molecular gastronomy. For Modern Meadow, he’ll be working on what Andras calls “last-mile issues” like texture, flavor, appearance, and mouthfeel by, for instance, suggesting how much fat to add and what kind.

For example, there is growing interest in the potential health benefits of the ketogenic diet, a diet rich in animal fat. If it were up to me, we’d devote more time and energy to replicating the virtues of animal fat at lower cost.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.