‘Pie hole’, colloquial for one’s mouth, is believed to have evolved in the USA in the 1980s from the British expression ‘cake hole’ (coined in the mid 20th century). Pie hole refers to a mouth, as in: Shut your pie hole or, in this case: Put less in your pie hole.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Frankenburger: I'm Lovin' It

News of the first lab-grown beef burger sure was a juicy topic world wide. Amongst the media frenzy were quite a number of interesting opinions: From "this 'meat' could be accepted by vegetarians", to opinions stating lab-grown meat is not more environmentally friendly than conventional meat production, to comments about the nutritional quality of the product. Several people have solicited my perspective, so I proceeded to do what any normal person would... delve into the research and write an article about it.

The burger that was cooked and consumed on Monday August 5th at a television studio in London, was the culmination of five year's work by Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Conservative estimates re the cost of this research is around $5 million, and the test burger cost a nifty $325,000. Google founder Sergey Brin, donated $1 million to help fund Post's research.

Now you're all caught up on the back-story, onto some different numbers: Environmental impacts. When I first read about lab-grown meat, I had my doubts about it being that much more environmentally friendly. In the end, you have to run a lab, support and monitor tissue growth, run tests, exercise the muscles, etc. These require electricity, water and resources that produce their share of greenhouse gasses.

A recent study showed lab-grown meat has, overall, substantially lower environmental impacts compared to conventionally produced meat, see Figure 1 (not to mention the reduction in feed required, or the ethical aspects associated with conventional meat production). Highlights:
  • Energy use in lab-grown meat was 7-45% lower than conventionally produced meat
    • Poultry was the exception
  • Greenhouse gas emissions were 78-96% lower in lab-grown meat
    • Lab-grown tissues don't fart
  • Land use was 99% lower 
    • A no-brainer really, meat in a lab doesn't need to walk around and graze all day
  • Water usage was 82-96% lower in lab-grown meat
    • A sobering thought: Conventional beef requires ~2,500 gallons (almost 10,000 liters) to produce just 1 pound (450g) of beef
Figure 1: Adapted from: Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production
Environmental Science and Technology: 2011, 45 (14) pp 6117-6123
An interesting question, though, is that of nutritional quality. The lab-grown burger had no fat in it, which must impact taste and texture to a degree. But also, it could change the bioavailability (degree of absorption and use by the body) of fat soluble vitamins - which need fat for optimal absorption.

Another nutritional question is that of the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals in the meat. Because lab-grown meat doesn't have a circulatory system and isn't being 'fed' by the animal, vitamins and minerals may need to be artificially introduced for the cells to function optimally. We know in humans that vitamin and mineral supplements are less bioavailable than those found in actual food. Will the vitamins and minerals in lab-grown meat have the same bioavailabilty as conventional meat?

There is no research in this area yet, so what comes next are my best 'edumacated' opinions:
  • If supplements are artificially introduced to lab-grown cells, it stands to reason that doses are carefully monitored to provide only the amount required for cells to function
    • Not at the excessively high doses humans take when using supplements
  • The cells will assimilate these nutrients the same way a cell in a living animal would - so they can continue to function, produce energy and survive
    • If the vitamins and minerals are assimilated into the tissue, they should behave the same as nutrients in conventional meat when ingested by humans
But again, these are just opinions. Time and research will inform us. In the meantime, the omnivores amongst us will continue to content themselves with conventionally produced meat, much to the disgust of their vegetarian counterparts. No paradigm shift... Yet.

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