01 February 2011

6 commonly cultured consumer eats that take the heat off of laboratory grown meat

Is it really possible to experience an unexpected kinship with carnivores, vegans or anyone else along the vast dietary spectrum when it comes to the topic of in vitro meat? At least in my small corner of the world, I’ve witnessed far more 'knowing glances' and 'you’re my kinda people gazes' between normally incongruous groups due to their apparently shared hyperactive gag reflexes. Being so entirely grossed out by the idea of animal flesh cultivated in a Petri dish appears to be enough to prompt individuals who are conventionally on opposite sides of the ethical and moral fence to become fast friends who might even be inclined to shoot a game of pool together in the not-so-distant future.

Discussing the ethical, moral, health and environmental implications of meat is normally a hot-button topic, but perhaps even more so now that Dr. Vladimir Mironov has transformed a seemingly outlandish pipe dream into a potentially viable reality. The Medical University of South Carolina developmental biologist and tissue engineer has – thanks to a three year grant offered through PETA – been able to make notable advances on the laboratory meat cultivation front. His work could one day actually make ‘carneries’ -- football sized meat-growing facilities that cook up animal protein inside ginormous bio-reactors – a reality…that is if consumers can just get past what Dr. Mironov’s assistant refers to as the ‘yuck factor’ of what they do.

As it stands, they’ve been able to transform turkey embryonic cells called myoblasts (with the aid of a nutrient-rich bovine-based serum) into animal skeletal muscle tissue using a chitosan framework. Frankenfood though it may seem, their real-world cultured meat – which still has a long way to go – will be specifically designed to take on the desired characteristics of various types of livestock (in terms of flavor and texture) without the massive carbon footprint or ethical implications of conventionally-raised versions.

If you’re already twitching with a deep-seated revulsion, then perhaps you’re not aware that our society has actually subsisted on mass-produced, laboratory-cultured yet apparently ‘natural’ edibles for ages now. Here are some of the more common eats that someone in a white lab coat cooked up in enormous cauldrons before the final product ultimately landed on your plate or in your glass:

Quorn: Among the most popular of the frozen meat alternatives carried at natural food stores, this chicken-like product has nevertheless received consistently unwanted press due to its illness-causing history. Blame the bad rep on its allergy-triggering mycoprotein (known more familiarly as Fusarium venenatum -- a unique type of soil mold found in Great Britain) that is, incidentally, cooked up in exceedingly ample fermentation tanks along with naturally binding chicken egg albumen. The resulting highly textured and toothsome product has caused everything from vomiting, nausea and diarrhea to hives and labored breathing.

Yogurt: Containing probiotics that aid the digestive system, yogurt is the result of the natural bacterial fermentation of milk. Lactic acid (a byproduct released by Lactobacillus bulgaricus organisms) is responsible for the thick consistency and tangy taste of this thick dairy product, which obtains a sharper profile the longer it's incubated.

Wine: Favored as one of the top celebratory libations known to mankind, crushed fruit such as grapes (or even rice, barley, honey or various other raw ingredients) are typically fermented along with yeast so that any naturally occurring sugars can be converted into alcohol.

Beer: With a rich cultural history that rivals wine, a simple blend of purified water, hops, barley and yeast are typically required to yield the brew that frat boys, weekend warriors and everyone in between clamors for. The real secret to beer’s success? Copious amounts of water, which enable the grain to release the sugar essential to yeast survival, plus thorough mashing of the mixture which further aids the fermentation process.

Bread: Referred to as the staff of life, a combination of flour, water, yeast, shortening and various additional flavoring/binding agents are typically joined together to yield loaves that possess a distinctively unique texture, flavor and nutritional value. Living unicellular fungi known more typically as yeast organisms are really responsible for the magic. In the presence of grain sugars, they grow, ultimately releasing carbon dioxide bubbles that in turn prompt the dough to rise.

Cheese: Whether you choose to nosh on posh brie or plain old pedestrian pasteurized cheese food, it’s all achieved by acidifying milk with bacterial molds and cultures. The key ingredient is typically a mammal-derived enzymatic complex called rennet, which causes milk to separate into curds and whey. Once the liquid is completely pressed out of the solid material, a diverse array of cheese varieties are made depending on the specific bacteria introduced as well as other factors such as ripening time, use of brines/molds/smoking agents, etc.

Is laboratory-grown food nearly as funky or sci-fi now?

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/jpf