Although plant-based meat startups, such as Impossible Foods, have been in the limelight lately, there are still startups that are working on ethical meat grown from animal cells, giving you a real burger without the cruelty and climate change issues. But, while it’s great to see a number of companies trying to replace burgers with greener options, there’s been little word about replacements for the hundreds of other meat products—such as steaks.
Plant-based steak seems like a bit of a stretch, but what about lab-grown steak? Thus far, an ethical meat startup hasn’t been able to do this because of the lack of collagen in real muscle tissue, meaning that any attempt at making steaks comes out mushy. That could soon change, however, after Harvard University researchers found a way to simulate real meat by growing cow and rabbit muscle cells on a scaffold made out of gelatin (yum).
In the body, cells don’t just sit there in a pile. They get physical support from water, collagen proteins, and nutrients, which help the cells grown and align. So, in order to grow muscle tissues that resembled meat, the researchers needed to find a ‘scaffold’ material that was edible and allowed muscle cells to attach and grow in 3D.
To create such a scaffold, the team elected to use gelatin, which is made from the collagen extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissue of domesticated animals. It’s not only edible but closely mimics the way collagen adds a succulent texture to meat when it’s cooked. The results are promising, but as with lab-grown burgers, you’re not likely to see alt-steaks on your plate anytime soon.
Scientists and bio-engineers still need to figure out how to grow them at scale in bioreactor facilities to keep up with the expected demand. The first lab-grown meat famously produced a $325,000 hamburger, and the company that created that one said it aims to create $10, production-scale burgers by 2021. Steaks are likely to be even farther off, given the technical and regulatory challenges to come.