Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Dec

In Vitro Meat

When Winston Churchill, in the 1932 essay “Fifty Years Hence,” mused that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he may have been more prescient than credited. Alexis Carrel had already been keeping a cultured chunk of chicken heart “alive” in a Pyrex flask for the past twenty years by feeding it nutrients (though Carrel was only interested in whether cell death was inevitable, not whether meat could be grown in a lab for human consumption). Sci-fi author Frederik Pohl was one man who took the idea of in vitro meat seriously enough to write about it – in the novel The Space Merchants, where cultured meat is the primary source of protein. That was science fiction, sure, but most good sci-fi is borne of the author’s honest opinion of what the future might hold and it’s usually inspired by the scientific advancements of the day. And sometimes, science fiction comes true. Like this time.

Dutch scientists were able to grow pork in a lab test tube. They extracted myoblast cells from the muscle of a living pig, incubated them in a piglet fetus-blood-nutrient solution, and got “a soggy form of pork.” No one’s tried the “pork” due to lab rules, but it’s derived from the same myoblast cells that generate muscle in response to tissue damage in an actual animal – ideally, this would taste exactly like pork muscle meat. They’ve even got plans to “exercise” the tissue, which could conceivably do away with the sogginess and provide a meatier chewing experience.

The Dutch scientists weren’t the first; four years ago, a research paper detailed plans to engineer in vitro meat on a massive, industrial scale, and others have been trying in vain for years to produce a decent lab-grown steak. The soggy pork is perhaps the closest they’ve gotten. Every researcher runs into a couple basic issues. First, there are generally two accepted methods for growing in vitro meat: the generation of either loose muscle cells or structured, “real” muscle. The latter is the ideal path, because it might make cohesive cuts of meat possible, but it’s also the most challenging. Real muscle growth depends on perfusion, or the delivery of arterial blood bearing nutrients to biological tissue, and a similar system might be required for “real” lab grown muscle. Until then, only thin sheets of muscle meat have been grown. These can be compressed into meat sheets or ground up, but a three-dimensional, juicy rare steak is still far off. The easy way out is to grow loose muscle cells, but unless you’re prepared for a future of unrecognizable meat products, you might want to wait for that soggy pork to firm up.

Where do I stand on the idea of in vitro meat? Well, I’m more than a little skeptical as you might imagine. Natural animal reproduction already does a pretty good job at growing meat, and major deviations from the natural order have a spotty track record. Big Pharma, for example, represents one big attempt after another to replace the natural order. It gets things right from time to time – I won’t argue against that – but it also creates unnecessary products that purport to protect patients from conditions that could otherwise be handled through lifestyle modifications. Both Big Pharma and the in vitro meat researchers are trying to understand incredibly complicated physiological processes that took millions of years to develop naturally. The vast interplay between hormones, nutrients, and environmental factors (including exercise, diet, and drugs) in the human body is difficult – if not impossible – to parse, but that’s exactly what medicine tries to do. When you take a drug, you’ve got to hope pharmacists took every possible factor into account. They can make educated guesses, and they’re often right, but not always. Statins, as prescribed, do a helluva job at lowering cholesterol (a pretty pointless gesture, but they do what they say they’ll do – note that they don’t promise reductions in actual heart disease), but they do so by interrupting the same passages used by other important bodily players – like CoQ10. It’s a complex thing, the human body.

Animal bodies are no different, and a steak isn’t just a matrix of muscle cells. It’s got fat (several kinds!), blood vessels, collagen, and different textures (which depend on the activity level of the animal; the lab meat cubes better have access to treadmills). Nutrients have to be shuttled in and waste out (grass-fed in vitro meat?). If you want a real steak with a bloody center, how is that achieved in the lab? Blood pockets? What’s the blood made of? What if I want a cowboy ribeye, bone-in – are they trying to grow bone, too? And I worry about the saturated fat content. One scientist mentioned replacing the Omega 6s with Omega 3s, which sounds promising, but I can only think the next step is to replace the saturated fats with even more Omega 3s (or, shudder, canola oil). Will it even taste the same?

At the same time, I remain open-minded. If they’re able to grow meat with perfect Omega 3/Omega 6 ratios, no hormones, no antibiotics, on a “diet” that recreates real grassy pasture, that tastes like meat, has the same texture as meat, the same saturated fat content as meat – I might be convinced to give it a shot. And if it’s cheaper than grass-fed meat, easier on the environment than industrial farming, and easy to produce on a mass scale without sacrificing quality, why wouldn’t I support it? Remember: I don’t glorify the ancestral, natural ways because they are ancestral and natural. It’s just that paying attention to evolution and being wary of modern “improvements” has paid off. The Primal Blueprint works. If in vitro meat works (and it’s proven beyond a doubt that it’s identical to real meat – a tall order, I grant you), why shouldn’t we give it a shot?

Still, I can’t help but doubt it. It’s not so much that I’m wary of processed food, because perfect in vitro meat that recreates actual meat is theoretically different than HFCS, boxed goods, and industrial vegetable oils, and it has the potential to revolutionize food (you mean I get to eat a black panther steak? Sign me up!); it’s that following the natural order has been so good to me. I eat according to human evolution, I exercise in accordance with my body’s design, and things have generally worked out well. Eating real steak raised the way it was intended to live has also worked out okay. I’ll keep my real meat for now and watch warily from the sidelines, curious and always skeptical.

Both Pohl and Churchill were undoubtedly inspired by Carrel’s experiment, but the prevailing public opinion was that the decades-old chicken heart was an abomination. It still lived when Carrel died, 28 years later, but the experiment was soon halted. If it weren’t for the negative public reaction, that chicken heart might still be pumping today. I suspect the initial public reaction to in vitro meat would be pretty similar, but what do you think?

Would you eat in vitro meat, provided it was completely identical to pastured, organic meat?

View Results

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If no, what would it take to convince you? Anything? Is there any possible scenario in which in vitro meat is a good thing for this world? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. All this modern food makes me wonder whether come 20 years time we will still be able to find real food easily. There is so much FrankenFood which is eaten as a staple by society, makes me think about the demand for rarer varieties of vegetables and fruit.

    Here is to hoping that movements like this will kick up demand and show people what is real…..

    Great post Mark!

    Chris - Zen to Fitness wrote on December 4th, 2009
    • I think as long as people like us still demand real and organically grown foods they’ll still have to provide it. Just in the last few years all the grocery stores carry SO much more organic stuff, and I think that’s totally about what Americans are demanding from them more and more. We just have to keep making our voices heard and stand up for ourselves and our health. And we have to teach our kids to stay away from frankenfoods, too. Because they’re voices will be the ones the country listens to most 20 years from now!

      Robin S. wrote on December 4th, 2009
  2. I have learned time and again that if my gut instinct is ‘No’ then I should follow it. Every time I don’t listen to my primal reaction, I regret it. And I find that I am even more in tune with my instincts, since turning, er, primal!

    So – no. Thanks all the same.

    PrimalK wrote on December 4th, 2009
  3. There’s no way it could be “identical”. Baby formula was touted for years as “better” than breast milk, until someone “discovered” more and more nutrients in breast milk that the formula companies are now trying to add to formula. Is milk from cows given hormones identical to milk from hormone-free cows? What about GM corn or other foods? Are they the same as non-GM? Cloned meat? I think there are too many things we don’t know how to analyze for yet, and balances of nutrients found in “normal” food that we don’t account for when we start tinkering with things. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with any of it.

    Ellen wrote on December 4th, 2009
  4. -Mmmm… what is this?

    =Soggy Pork.

    -Tastes like chicken!

    chima_p wrote on December 4th, 2009
  5. I voted YES becaues I’d be willing to try in-vitro meat if it was *completely* identical to the real thing. The problem is that I totally doubt it ever would be or could be. And even if it was possible I’m sure the scientists would mess around with it in attempts to “improve” it that would almost undoubtedly make it worse for our health.

    Debbie wrote on December 4th, 2009
  6. This blog post and the discussions remind me of the story/movie ‘The Island’. This comment contains spoilers about the story, so if you haven’t read/seen it don’t read on please: the people in the story live in a community and once in a while a person gets sent to an ‘island’ which is supposed to be like paradise, and they all look forward to it. Turns out that all these people are just clones that are ‘grown’ for rich people to eventually harvest their organs if and when the rich ‘original version’ of themselves requires it. Then they take what they need from the clones, because they’re not even considered actual people, just genetic creations with a specific purpose.

    It’s an interesting idea, to be able to grow new organs/muscles/body parts, but the idea of them being in a whole person is a bit scary. In fact, the idea of growing meat NOT in an actual animal is very strange and unnatural. I think that just because they’re ABLE to do something doesn’t mean they SHOULD. But that’s just my opinion:)

    Love your blog, Mark! This board is full of great info and even greater discussions!

    Robin Stange wrote on December 4th, 2009
  7. Anyone willing to eat something like this is a damned fool. The track record of scientists and food companies and other entities trying to “perfect” nature is a bad one. Lab food creations like this is why so many people in western societies are so sick. It started with pushing margerine and vegetable oils (poisonous crap made in labs and touted as better than real fats) over natural fats and oils for cooking foods!

    This is yet another attempt in a long line of attempts that will result in new diseases for the human family. It isn’t just gross it’s stupid.

    vargas wrote on December 4th, 2009
  8. I would eat it if it were identical to the real thing, with the grass fed component.

    I don’t think it is something that will happen soon because of corporate greed. The thought of Kraft or Hormel making my cloned meat makes me kind of queasy.

    However in a non-dystopic future in which we would want to preserve the planet and use science in an altruistic way to solve the problems we may face, this may be something that would be palatable literally and figuratively.

    thecarla wrote on December 4th, 2009
  9. They said that they’re trying to cut carbon emissions from modern animal farming with this in vitro meat. Methinks we need to come up with a sustainable way to raise animals for food, which would include some sort of population control of the whole world. I go several different ways on this issue. My gut instinct is no, because of the sustainability issue that needs to be resolved and because I don’t think that they could make a perfect replica. It’s kind of the whole margarine vs. butter and formula vs. breast feeding thing again. I think the original is always going to beat out the man made.

    kongluirong wrote on December 4th, 2009
  10. There are two options if you really believe that everyone should eat Paleo/Primal.

    Slash world population by about 3/4 or more, or come up with meat alternatives like this.

    You cannot be pro-Paleo for everyone and not accept this paradox. In vitro meat would also eliminate the “moral” component of vegetarianism.

    Gut reaction and emotion are damned poor substitutes for logic and fact.

    OnTheBayou wrote on December 4th, 2009
    • Or, stop giving free food to the undeveloped world – forcing them to get their affairs in order and to create their own self-sufficient economies – and then get rid of all of the laws designating vast swaths of land as off-limits to (many or all types of) human activity.

      I envision a world where every major continent is covered with ranch land.

      Grant wrote on December 5th, 2009
    • I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the world simply can’t sustain a human population of 6.7 billion people without something artificial to prop up that number, like fossil fuels.

      Icarus wrote on December 5th, 2009
  11. OnTheBayou, I think you bring up a good point. Our evolution hasn’t caught up with our society’s sense of morality, and nature can’t supply enough food for everyone to eat primally. I’ve thought about this myself. If I had come up with a solution, though, I’m sure I’d have won the Nobel Prize by now.

    Deanna wrote on December 4th, 2009
    • It’s a classic tragedy of the commons.

      As an individual, I want to eat primally so I can be as healthy as possible, but I also realize that if everyone ate like that, virtually the entire world would be devoted to producing meat for humans to consume.

      The solution? I guess eat small animals that are more efficient at turning plants into meat calories, and shave down the meat proportion of your diet some. I wish someone would address this type of conservationist-primal diet.

      I think it’s worth noting that you can probably get 99.9% of the health benefits of eating primally, just by avoiding all processed foods (and all caloric drinks — even fruit juice) and eating *some* high quality animal protein on a daily basis. This would require scaling up the consumption of vegan fat and starchier vegetables (e.g., yams).

      Jon wrote on December 5th, 2009
  12. It’s a great thought that we could have a completely environmentally and humanely responsible way to enjoy meat but I just don’t believe men in lab coats are ever going to match Mother Nature. It’s just too complex of a task. We need to strive for the highest order of natural foods produced with great attention to the environment and humane practices. We will just never out do Mother Nature and we’ll never be able to replace it if we lose it.

    Del Mar Mel wrote on December 5th, 2009
  13. Now there’s news from the laboratory,
    That’s sure to stir debate and oratory.

    If we make fake meat in a lab without killing real animals,
    If we make fake human meat, would we be fake cannibals?

    Faux meat?
    Not for me!

    Jim Purdy wrote on December 7th, 2009
  14. God created animals for humans to eat.

    frank wrote on December 7th, 2009
    • Who? Man created “God” and Man didn’t create the animals, so I think you made a mistake somewhere…

      Ross wrote on December 7th, 2009
  15. Wow! Did we just go through some kind of time warp and we ended up in a pre-Darwinian or even a pre-scientific universe?

    Of course, that would be a very primal mind-view, so our primal diet and our primal outlook would match quite well.

    Just so I don’t have to sacrifice my first-born son to the primal gods.

    Jim Purdy wrote on December 7th, 2009
  16. This website is about thinking logically. Creating a lifestyle based on reason and science, and I applaud that. You’re very adept at linking evolution to present-day life.

    I propose you expand your horizons even further, though. We’re entering the age of huge technological changes. Of course, right now, we have no options but to eat dead animals if we want meat. But I can’t seem to find any reason against in-vitro meat, once such a possibility becomes available.

    You have valid points pertaining to the composition of the meat. But this is science we’re talking about. The scientists are thinking about these same exact points. Who knows when it’ll come about, but it will happen. We’ll create food that’s even healthier than dead animal. We’ll understand the massive complexity of our anatomy. Why limit ourselves to this quite healthy evolution-based lifestyle, when we have science at our side, beckoning for us to head even further? Technology of the future is not a calamity out of your control. It will be determined by the will of the people, and the fact that we are seeing experimentation of this sort shows that people are calling on science once again, just as they always have.

    Dmitri Podolsky wrote on December 15th, 2009
    • “We’ll create food that’s even healthier than dead animal.”

      Not bloody likely. Remember that it was “scientists” that started the low-fat crap diet fad. I don’t expect to live long enough for the nutritionists to get it right, especially since what appears to pass for science in that field is actually superstition.

      TXCHLInstructor wrote on December 15th, 2009
      • You may not live long enough to see this become perfect, I agree. Science can be fast and it can, most of the time, be slow. But no matter how slow it lumbers along, we’ll find it eventually. The population is slowly realizing they’ve been duped by the government all this time, and study after study will slowly show us the true path to health.

        Since this article doesn’t have a timeframe listed, we can talk in any timeframe we would like. We simply cannot make food healthier than dead animal yet, because we don’t understand it completely. We will understand it, and we will duplicate it. No one believed pain killers would ever be created, until we found a way. No one believed that phones would be invented, until we found a way. Virtually anything you can think of..we’ll find a way.

        Dmitri Podolsky wrote on December 16th, 2009
  17. Would i eat it if it was identical to grass fed meat? definitely. Will it be identical to grass fed meat? I highly doubt.

    beginners workout wrote on February 7th, 2010
  18. On the question of invitro meat of natural grassfed quality…confidence is low, at least in my lifetime. I enjoyed everyone’s comments on the moral/planetary issues. Also, the comments concerning the evolutionary premise of this blog.

    On the philosophical/religous veiwpoints espoused here; I have never been able buy into the argument that Evolution as science precludes the exixtence of God, or that belief in a creator invalidates Evolution. Science and religion are both a search for truth, the former being objective and the latter being subjective. If the truth is what matters, it shouldn’t matter what it turns out to be. When Dawkins proclaims that evolution proves there can be no god, he leaves the field of science and becomes an evolutionary philosopher. Likewise, when a religion proclaims evolution to be a lie, they are abandoning the field of faith and pretending to be scientists. Truth can’t contradict itself. The only conflict between evolution and religion is the result of having a narrow minded veiwpoint.

    NotSoFast wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  19. Thanks Mark for this article.

    As I see it, the issue with “meat’ created by science is twofold:

    1) It is a continuation of humanity’s constant rejection of our place in nature.

    2) The definition of “meat” by science is likely simply the constituent amino acids and hence protein structures, I SERIOUSLY doubt they would bother with including all the added nutritional benefits. This is simply science attempting to ensure a protein source.

    3) Even IF the scientists that create this “meat” do decide to include the additional vitamins and Omega-3’s etc, these scientists AND the regulators that will approve this product as “fit for human consumption” are ALL Conventional Wisdom folk!!!

    These are the same organisations and regulatory bodies that have doomed generations to the fallacies that grains are healthy, soy is healthy, vegetarianism is healthy, low fat is healthy, saturate fat, or just fat in general is unhealthy and carbs are healthy and great for energy!

    So I agree, if they COULD ever match nature and included, including the fats (saturated and otherwise), as well as vitamins and minerals etc, then I would consider it, I just seriously doubt that is what the result will be. In business when you hire someone there is an edict “past performance predicts future performance”, based on that alone, the past performance of science, “health” and medical associations and the regulators/government that created CW, I predict a CW solution!

    Just my 2 cents,


    PS – For some reason I picture Vegans promoting this “meat” like the vampires in True Blood try and gain acceptance by promoting the use of a synthetic blood created by science which can sustain them… however as the vampires in the story say, sustain is not the same as enjoy and thrive!!! The synthetic may be acceptable if you have no other choice, but the choice for a health/vibrant/thriving “vampire life” is REAL blood…

    I feel you could sustain yourself on this “meat”, but you only could thrive on the real stuff.

    Luke in Oz wrote on August 16th, 2010
  20. Clearly, I had two points originally, and they became three (or even 4 including my PS) 😉

    Luke in Oz wrote on August 16th, 2010
  21. Nah. I like the food I put into my body to come from a vibrant living source. Even just the idea of some “test tube” steak leaves me with zero appetite and zero trust that it will *really* nourish me.

    Liberty wrote on September 20th, 2010
  22. I’m surprised and amused reading this block comments.
    Meatproduced in a lab is basically the same meat started from te same cells as an animal starts with. As a mather of fact , thos cells are taken trough a mini intervention from living animalsSo they are identical. To make them grow, we have to feed them and give the cells oxigen, the same wayan animal does , but with the help of artificiel scaffoldings, feed flow etc.The difficulty is reaching all the corners of the cells with the medium and the oxigen.It is more difficult and complex than described here, but generally this is the way we can produce safe meat , where we can control the contaminants and mutants…Scientists are generally not the freeky type. They only work on the moving of the borderlimits of todays knowledge in function of better world.Mistakes and errors are possible, but we do the utmost to avoid them…..and if not possible, we correct them asap.In the same way you trust your aircraft engineer to avoid errors resulting in killing passengers , in the same way trust us to contribute in the good sense?

    christian wrote on July 25th, 2012
  23. Now that they have this thing called “cultured beef”, I’ll just say that I’m open to it if they’ll actually be able to produce lab meat that is basically identical to pastured organic meat one day, with low environmental impact and no adverse health effects.

    I also have no problem with lab meat replacing the meat coming from animals who’ve been treated like industrial products all of their short and miserable lives, which unfortunately is the case for the majority of meat products.

    All said, I think we should always support “real” farms that treat animals humanely and enable them to live more healthful lives. I understand that these types of farms are a form of luxury in a way, and realistically can’t be the end-all-be-all-solution to world hunger.

    Chris W wrote on August 5th, 2013

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