Books, TV and film have given us many concepts of futuristic food over the years. Perhaps a pill that makes you full without having to eat anything else, or various liquid concoctions full of essential vitamins and minerals. In reality, the near future of food, particularly meat, actually looks, smells and even tastes quite a lot like the meat we eat today, but for one major difference: it's grown inside a lab.
Seeker's Laura Ling recently visited one of the companies heading up the lab-grown meat industry, New Wave Foods, a biotech startup based in Northern California that specializes in creating synthetic shrimp. New Wave Foods was started by Dominique Barnes and Michelle Wolf, who are both passionate about making the food industry, particularly the seafood industry, more sustainable.
"Shrimp is the number one consumed seafood in the US [...] but the way we're getting it now isn't sustainable," Barnes told Laura Ling. In fact, 38% of the world's mangroves have been destroyed in order to create shrimp farms. New Wave Foods doesn't involved any farming or fishing. Their product looks, smells and tastes like shrimp, but it's created from plants and algae in a lab and then goes through a proprietary process that gives it the consistency of real shrimp.
Perhaps most surprisingly, it also has the same nutritional value as real shrimp. "Our product will have a very similar nutritional value, as far as having high protein, low fat. Because it's made out of plants and algae, it will be zero cholesterol. And even if you have a shellfish allergy, you will most likely be able to consume our product because we don't have that same component," said Barnes.
New Wave Foods isn't the only company delving into the world of lab grown meat as a sustainable alternative to traditionally farmed meat. Memphis Meats, also based in Nor Cal, grows stem cells from cows, pigs and chickens to create "cultured meat" as they prefer to call it.
Memphis Meats CEO, Uma Valeti, M.D., told Fortune, "Conventional meat production is inherently inefficient," and he thinks it's time the industry had an update. The way meat is currently produced takes 23 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of beef. Memphis Meats says that not only does its cultured meat reduce that amount to 3 to 1, it also uses 90% less water and 50% less land than traditional methods.
Another benefit to lab grown meat could be the added health benefits. While we don't yet know the long-term benefits or risks associated with eating lab grown meat, we do know that earlier this year, the World Health Organization classified (conventional) red meat as "probably carcinogenic" and processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans."
The particular component or components of red meat that actually cause cancer has not yet been identified, but scientists suspect that one of them is heme iron, which is found almost exclusively in red meat and can cause DNA damage and cancer. According to lab grown meat producers like Memphis Meats, their product can be produced entirely without heme iron, in theory making it safer for human consumption than traditional red meat.
The success of lab grown meat companies like New Wave Foods and Memphis Meats will also heavily depend on how the product actually tastes. Barnes and Wolf agree. "What it comes down to is taste. So we can apply all these amazing processes, but if it doesn't taste amazing, then consumers aren't going to accept it," Wolf told Seeker.
The shrimp from New Wave Foods got the official taste test approval from Laura Ling as well as her seafood connoisseur father, Doug. They both agreed that the fake shrimp looked, smelled and tasted pretty darn close to the real thing.
Barnes told Ling that the main priorities of New Wave Foods are the consumer and the environment. "I think it's going to take a lot of these great ideas that are coming to market, to help solve some of the problems that we see in our food supply chain. Our ultimate goal is really to continue to create delicious food that's good for you and the environment."
-- Molly Fosco