What does an “animal protein cake” taste like? That’s the question I’m left asking after reading about the much-anticipated (well, in certain circles) taste test of the $325,000 in-vitro beef burger that happened in London today. Food writer Josh Schonwald was one of the three people who attended the highly publicized barbecue, and his description of the burger, which was developed thanks to financing from Google cofounder Sergey Brin, leaves a bit to be desired.
“The bite feels like a conventional hamburger,” said Schonwald of the in-vitro burger. OK, we won’t nitpick over what kind of conventional hamburger—a spatula-flatted flat-top patty, thin and charred, or a loosely packed, medium-rare juicy puck—but if we’re all supposed to get behind this idea of meat grown in tubes, can we get a more evocative description of its flavor than “animal protein cake”? Because that just brings to mind those rubbery fish cakes that inexplicably float in every bowl of ramen—the ones with the pink or purple swirl running through the middle.
Of course, the in-vitro beef burger's notable merit is its very existence, matters of taste aside. The idea of growing meat in a tube has existed as a concept for quite some time, and was even championed by the likes of Winston Churchill. In 1936 he said, “Fifty years hence, 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.” His prognostication was actually off by a fair bit, timing-wise, since the work done by researchers at Maastricht University marks the first time the idea has been developed to the point were a public trial was feasible.
Statistically, the technology would be a huge improvement over resource-intensive animal husbandry. The Environmental Science & Technology Journal conducted an independent study of in-vitro beef production and found that culturing beef in a lab uses 45 percent less energy, emits 96 percent less greenhouse gases and uses 99 percent less land than the cattle-ranching industry.
As the BBC explains, the process developed by professor Mark Post starts with stems cells pulled from cow muscle tissue.
In the laboratory, these are cultured with nutrients and growth promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply. Three weeks later, there are more than a million stem cells which are put into smaller dishes where they coalesce into small strips of muscle about a centimeter long and a few millimeters thick.
Create enough of these small strips, and you can pack them together to make a hamburger, although to mimic the color and texture of cow-grown beef, the in-vitro beef is augmented with beet juice, saffron, bread crumbs, and a binder. Ironically, the burger was cooked with a bit of butter, which we assume was not generated in a lab.
Hanni Ruetzle, a researcher at Future Food Studio, gave the burger a more enthusiastic review:
There is really a bite to it, there is quite some flavour with the browning. I know there is no fat in it so I didn't really know how juicy it would be, but there is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, it's not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect. This is meat to me... It's really something to bite on and I think the look is quite similar.