Lab-grown fat promises flavor boost for cultivated meat
Cultivated meat is shaping up as an eco-friendly, cruelty-free alternative to traditional meat production. However, it’s missing one element crucial to flavor: fat. But a team of researchers has developed a way of cultivating fat on a large scale with a texture and makeup similar to animal fat.
Also known as cultured meat or lab-grown meat, cultivated meat is produced by culturing animal cells using a combination of biotechnology, tissue engineering, molecular biology, and synthetic processes. The technology creates a product intended to resemble traditional meat. However, cultivated meat is missing an ingredient that is key to both flavor and texture: fat.
Think of crispy bacon and crunchy pork crackling. The fat they contain makes them delicious and creates a “mouthfeel” that’s enjoyable. Scientists have found that some flavors like sticking to fat molecules, prolonging the taste in our mouths. And the live animal fats absorb aromatic compounds from the animal’s food, intensifying meat flavor. Indeed, consumer testing has shown that natural beef containing 36% fat scored higher on the taste scale than its less-fatty competitors.
But fat-less cultivated meat may soon be a thing of the past. Researchers have successfully created fat in a lab with a similar texture and make-up to naturally occurring animal fat, and they say the technique is scalable.
Until now, producing large quantities of cultured fat has been a challenge. Unlike in nature, where blood vessels feed oxygen and nutrients to the fat, lab-made fat tends to be starved of these important elements the larger it grows.
To get around this problem, the researchers first grew fat cells from mice and pigs in a two-dimensional layer before harvesting those cells to create a three-dimensional mass held together with binders such as sodium alginate and microbial transglutaminase (mTG), already used in some foods.
“Our goal was to develop a relatively simple method of producing bulk fat,” said John Yuen Jr, lead author of the study. “Since fat tissue is predominantly cells with few other structural components, we thought that aggregating the cells after growth would be sufficient to reproduce the taste, nutrition and texture profile of natural animal fat.”
To see if the aggregated fat had features similar to native animal fat, the researchers tested how much pressure the lab-made fat could withstand. They found that cultivated fat bound with sodium alginate could withstand a similar amount of pressure to livestock and poultry fat, whereas the fat bound with mTG acted like lard or tallow.
Aware that natural fat-based compounds improve flavor, the researchers next looked at the molecular composition of the cultivated fat. They found that the fatty acids in cultured mouse fat differed from those in naturally occurring mouse fat. The cultured pig fat was much closer in fatty acid composition to the native tissue.
The study’s findings suggest it’s possible to supplement cultivated fat cells with lipids so they more closely match the composition of natural meat. Importantly, the researcher’s method for growing fat is scalable.
“This method of aggregating cultured fat cells with binding agents can be translated to large-scale production of cultured fat tissue in bioreactors – a key obstacle in the development of cultured meat,” said David Kaplan, the study’s corresponding author. “We continue to look at every aspect of cultured meat production with an eye toward enabling mass production of meat that looks, tastes and feels like the real thing.”
The study was published in the journal eLife.
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