What a lab-made meat-rice hybrid says about the future of food

SEOUL - Sitting in a coffee shop near one of Seoul’s most prestigious universities, Jinkee Hong carefully pondered the right words to describe the aroma and flavor of his lab creation: a bowl of pink rice.

“Although it hasn’t been approved for public consumption, I have personally tasted it. I might say it smells something like beef,” he said in a Zoom video call, adding that it was rather bland.

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But flavor isn’t Hong’s focus. It’s what’s attached to the rice - lab-grown animal protein - and what it means about the future of food.

“I believe, in the future, this can make the world a better place in terms of sustainability and food safety,” he said.

Hong, a professor in Yonsei University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, worked with colleagues to grow beef cells inside of rice grains coated in fish gelatin and familiar food-grade enzymes. The end result: a bowl of rice that has 8 percent more protein than a normal serving and produces the same amount of carbon emissions as the grain crop, a staple food for about half of the world’s population. The findings were published in a paper that Hong co-authored in the journal Matter this month.

“I’m a polymer engineer, and not a nutritionist or food expert,” Hong said. “An 8 percent increase in protein may not seem significant, but the fact that actual animal protein can be consumed through rice is important.”

For many scientists, the growing field of cultivated meat research promises a future freed from modern factory-farming woes: no injected hormones or antibiotics, no elevated cortisol levels - which are caused by the animal’s stress and are linked to lower-quality meat - and less potential for transmitting dangerous pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, which can be found in the meat or spread to crops when farmers spray fields with animal feces.

Proponents of lab-grown meat argue that fewer animals would have to be slaughtered or raised in overcrowded pens, and carbon emissions could be significantly reduced. Livestock accounts for about 32 percent of human-caused methane emissions, according to the U.N. Environment Program. If meat consumption were a country, its emissions would outrank every nation except China.

“This is the vision that the whole field is aspiring toward, for sure,” said Amy Rowat, a professor of integrative biology and physiology at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The million-dollar question is, when will we see this in your grocery store? I think we are still some ways away.”

For at least 10 years, scientists around the world have been looking for the right “scaffolding” - what some call a “microcarrier” - upon which they can raise cultured animal protein and fat cells. In 2013, a scientist from the Netherlands attracted international attention when he grew a hamburger patty in a Petri dish and then presented it for a guest to eat it on live television. The beef patty cells were harvested after they proliferated on the surface of inedible microbeads.

Since then, other labs - including Rowat’s - have worked with other microcarriers, such as beads made from edible gelatin or textured vegetable protein.

Hong’s team in South Korea has shown it can be done with a food as familiar as rice.

Cultivated meats have attracted billions of dollars in investment but are still costly to produce and difficult to scale. Only two countries in the world - the United States and Singapore - allow consumers to buy them. Some companies are working on new, hybrid products: for example, plant-based meat with animal fat incorporated for taste. But even sales of plant-based meat alternatives have slid after a strong market debut.

At least half of all U.S. adults in a 2023 survey said they were “not at all likely” to try lab-grown meat. Among them, 56 percent said it “just sounds weird,” and nearly half said they weren’t convinced eating it would be safe.

“Definitely, one of the hurdles is public perception. … The taste and disgust factor is something that comes up often,” Rowat said. “If you call a food ‘lab-grown,’ that is not an incentivizing factor and it doesn’t really convey how the meat is actually produced.”

Many cultivated meats are created without GMO technology, Hong said, including his meaty rice. “I fully believe that this food is really safe,” he said.

It’s no secret that there are problems with how the United States produces its food. A 2011 study found that nearly half of all U.S. meat contained a harmful, drug-resistant bacteria. Pathogens found in American meat have also been linked to thousands of hospitalizations and deaths each year, as well as hundreds of thousands of urinary tract infections. Ultra-processed foods - often defined as food with chemical additives or ingredients that are unrecognizable to a home kitchen (think maltodextrin and soy protein isolate) - are linked to chronic inflammation, obesity, heart disease, bowel diseases and cancer, yet they make up nearly 60 percent of the calories consumed in the American diet.

“I think it’s funny that I often get the response that, ‘Ew, that’s too much science in my food,’” Rowat said, referring to cultivated meats.

“But if you eat Doritos, for example, so much science is poured into that food - and people are more willing to accept it.”

For now, Hong’s rice is not ready for supermarket shelves, but he hopes to tinker with the ratio of protein and fat cells to maximize its nutritional value and improve the taste, which carries flavors of almond from the muscle protein cells and butter from the fat cells. It doesn’t quite taste like beef, he said, because there is no blood.

“If I were a chef,” he said, “I may have to use some seasoning to make it feel very delicious.”

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Shannon Osaka contributed to this report.

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