Edible fibers boost the texture of lab-grown meat
Although lab-grown meat could be a more ethical, eco-friendly alternative to the "real" thing, its texture still leaves something to be desired. That may be about to change, though, thanks to the use of edible gelatin scaffolds.
The meat that people currently eat mostly consists of slaughtered animals' skeletal muscle, which takes the form of long, thin fibers. And while it's possible to grow the muscle cells in the lab, they don't form into such fibers, resulting in a meat texture that is off-puttingly unnatural.
With that in mind, scientists at Harvard University's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences utilized a process known as rotary jet-spinning, to create nanofibers made of a food-safe gelatin. The researchers proceeded to produce three-dimensional assemblages of the fibers, which mimicked the extracellular matrix which serves as the structural scaffold within natural muscle tissue.
When rabbit and cow muscle cells were subsequently seeded into the assemblages, those cells anchored themselves to the fibers and began reproducing, ultimately forming into meat with a fibrous structure and texture. In fact, when mechanical testing was used to compare that lab-grown meat to natural rabbit, bacon, beef tenderloin, prosciutto and other meats, the texture was found to be similar … but there is still some work to be done.
"Although the cultured and natural products had comparable texture, natural meat contained more muscle fibers, meaning they were more mature," says postdoctoral fellow Luke Macqueen, first author of the study. "Muscle and fat cell maturation in vitro are still a really big challenge that will take a combination of advanced stem cell sources, serum-free culture media formulations, edible scaffolds such as ours, as well as advances in bioreactor culture methods to overcome […] Eventually, we think it may be possible to design meats with defined textures, tastes, and nutritional profiles – a bit like brewing."
A paper on the research, which is being led by Prof. Kit Parker, was recently published in the journal Nature Science of Food.