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Lab-Grown Burgers Have a Secret Ingredient: Plants

The future of meat poses a philosophical conundrum. Some things we can unequivocally call a beef burger. A 100 percent beef patty, for example. Take out some of that ground mince and add in a little water, onion, some salt and pepper. Now you’ve a burger that’s 82 percent beef. Is it still a beef burger?

Most people would say so. But what if we push things even further? Say we dialed the animal component way down and chucked some other stuff in there—soy or pea protein, for example. Is a beef burger with 50 percent animal cells still a beef burger? How about a burger that is just 5 percent cow but packs in so much umami beefiness that it’s closer to the real thing than any plant-based burger out there? Is that a beef burger, or just a beef-flavored burger?

These are the questions the cultivated meat industry is grappling with right now. Two companies in the US have the Food and Drug Administration’s nod that their cultivated meat is safe for human consumption, and are awaiting further sign-off from the Department of Agriculture before they can sell their meat in restaurants and stores. But the economics of growing animal cells in bioreactors are still eye-watering. The easiest way to get meat out there that people can afford is to blend expensive bioreactor-brewed animal cells with much cheaper plant-based proteins. The immediate future of cultivated meat is hybrid.

In Oakland, California, Upside Foods is experimenting with a couple of blended chicken products. When I visited in May 2022 I tried a breakfast sausage made with 35 percent chicken cells, a chicken paté that was two-thirds chicken cells, as well as a chicken filet that was 100 percent chicken cells. Both of the hybrid meats had the kind of well-seasoned, umami heft that belied their ingredient list. In nearby San Leandro, another cultivated meat startup is trying to push these ratios even further. At SciFi foods, CEO Joshua March has experimented with beef burgers that contain as little as 5 percent animal cells.

“Even at the 5 to 10 percent inclusion rate, you do see some pretty big dramatic improvements in flavor,” says March. The idea is that the plant protein—soy, in SciFi’s case—gives structure and texture, while the beef cells mask the earthy flavors sometimes associated with plant proteins and add a beefy aroma and taste. Fat cells are particularly crucial for giving mostly plant-based burgers a meaty mouthfeel, says March. Just a small amount of fat cells boosts the flavor dramatically.

Taste aside, the real attractiveness of hybrid burgers for cultivated meat companies is that mixing plant and animal proteins brings the cost of their products way down. Growing animal cells in factories is still extremely expensive. Cultivated meat is grown in big facilities full of bioreactors that are expensive to build and run. Cells also require an expensive cocktail of amino acids, sugars, and growth factors that until now has mostly been produced in much smaller quantities for the research and pharmaceutical industries.

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It’s essentially a problem of scale. Proteins like soy and pea are produced on a mass scale for very low prices, but the cultivated meat industry is still reliant on supply chains that exist for the pharmaceutical industry, where margins are much higher. In Oxford in the UK, scientists at cultivated meat firm Ivy Farm Technologies are making a hybrid pork meatball made up of 51 percent pig cells, 7 percent pea protein, and then onion, herbs, and seasoning. The single cultivated meatball I tried at Ivy Farm’s pilot plant cost around $20 to produce, and 95 percent of that cost was driven by the animal cells, according to Ivy’s CEO, Rich Dillon.

This is why blending is likely to be the main approach used by cultivated meat companies to get products out, says Steve Molino, an investor at Clear Current Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in cultivated and plant-based meat. A blended burger would be much, much closer to the price of a conventional burger than would a fully cultivated burger. It’ll also help deal with another problem likely to face cultivated meat early on: The total amount of meat produced is likely to be tiny.

There are no large-scale cultivated meat plants in the US. Upside Foods has the largest pilot plant, which can produce 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat each year. In 2021, by way of comparison, 51 billion pounds of chicken was produced in the US alone. Even for cultivated meat to make up a fraction of 1 percent of chicken meat supply in the US would take a quantum leap in terms of production. “The amount that is going to be supplied is so, so small that even enthusiasts are going to be waiting—and we’re going to be able to eat up all that supply very, very quickly,” says Molino. Mixing animal cells with plant-based protein will help this limited supply go a lot further, and allow companies to claw back more of the cost of building cultivated meat factories. 

This might sound like penny-pinching, but mixing meat with plants is nothing new, Dillon points out. Some sausages are just 42 percent pork, and it’s relatively rare to find a minced meat product that doesn’t have at least a few extra ingredients added to bind, bulk, or flavor. Conventional meat manufacturers have also experimented with making blending a virtue—a way to market meat that is better for people and has a lower carbon footprint. In the UK, supermarket Tesco sells a beef meatball blended with butternut squash and onion. It’s not clear whether this kind of blending has much appeal, however. US meat firm Tyson briefly made blended meat-and-plant burgers and nuggets before pulling them from shelves in 2020.

Mixing plant protein and animal cells also lets cultivated meat companies experiment with the ideal composition for a new product. “There are all these different levers to pull,” says Emma Lewis, chief commercial and product officer at Ivy Farm Technologies. They can play with the ratio of fat and muscle cells for a juicier or leaner meatball and try to dial in specific nutritional qualities. Ivy Farms has also been working with a premium burger restaurant that is interested in creating burgers made of a blend of cultivated beef and conventional meat. “It could be the most sustainable meat out there, or potentially the most nutritional burger, and still taste exactly the same,” says Dillon.

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No matter the taste or nutritional profile, taste is going to be key. “You have to blow people’s minds,” says Molino. If hybrid burgers end up tasting no different to plant-based alternatives, then all the hype around lab-grown meat may prove to be worth naught. The pork meatball I tried in Oxford definitely tasted like meat. It had more bite than a plant-based meatball, and a deep savoriness. The same was true of the blended chicken products I tried at Upside’s pilot plant in Oakland. But all of these are highly seasoned and processed products where the meat isn’t exactly in a leading role.

That might prove to be a problem. For a long time the cultivated meat industry has distinguished itself from the plant-based meat industry because it promises to make “real” meat made out of real animal cells. But March says that it has been clear for a long time that the economics for 100 percent cultivated meat don’t quite add up. “It always shocked me that people were still trying to sell the dream of 100 percent cultivated,” he says. “I do think people have done themselves and the industry a bit of a disservice on that.”

Meat grown in bioreactors is already a bit weird. It might be that mixing animal cells and plant protein is too much extra weirdness for a new product—or it might be that people accept hybrid cultivated meat just like they’re happy to accept hybrid conventional meat. Either way, the industry is about to find out.

Soon—probably within the year—cultivated meat is going to be available in the US. At first it’ll be in just a couple of high-end restaurants, but if these companies are going to deliver on their missions of reducing the cruelty and environmental devastation inherent in our current way of making meat, they’ll need to find a way of getting lots of people to eat their products. And for the foreseeable future, that’ll mean trying to persuade people to embrace hybrid meat.

Updated 4-4-2023 10:45 am BST: The spelling of Joshua March’s name was corrected.

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