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One step closer to scalable, lab-cultivated meat?

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Despite advances in food science, more work is needed to grow meat that mimics the texture and quality of biologically derived meat.

Edible microcarriers have brought researchers closer to cultivating meat in a lab that mimics the texture of biologically grown meat using a scalable process (Biomaterials. 2022:122169).

Proponents of lab-grown meat argue cultivated meat can help meet demands for food among a growing global population and wager such methods could improve the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Early methods of producing lab-cultivated meat, however, have been time intensive and difficult to scale, creating demand for innovative solutions that can meet mainstream demand.

One company, Netherlands-based Meatable, uses proprietary technology to create its cultivated pork sausage, which is expected to hit the market by 2025.

While plant-based meat alternatives have garnered widespread attention from consumers, retailers and restaurants alike, researchers contend plant-based options won’t replace meat at the kitchen table anytime soon. In fact, less-than-stellar adoption of plant-based alternatives has led restaurants like McDonald’s to pull plant-based options from the menu.

“The rapidly developing field of cultured meat—which addresses the challenge of growing muscle ex vivo by culturing precursor cells harvested from animals in a bioreactor—could provide a complementary method for meat production,” authors of the present study, published in Biomaterials, wrote.

Cells used to grow meat in a lab, however, aren’t attached to the extracellular matrix (ECM), which influences the form and structure of the muscle developed in biologically derived meat.

Traditionally, inedible microcarriers are used to make up for the work of the ECM in lab-grown meats. These inedible carriers, however, must be removed later in processing, adding more complexity to an already complex process—as well as one more hurdle in the race toward at-scale production of lab-grown options.

“One way to improve efficiency of cultured meat in a bioreactor would be to culture myoblasts [muscle tissue stem cells] on edible microcarriers with tunable physical properties to effectively drive their proliferation and differentiation into myotubes [skeletal muscle fibers],” the researchers hypothesized.

Using gelatin and a food-grade crosslinking enzyme, microbial transglutaminase (MTG), researchers developed edible microcarriers, as well as a scalable process to generate the edible microcarriers using water-in-oil emulsions.

They also developed an embossing technique to imprint aligned grooves into the edible microcarriers. The grooved microcarriers were compared against the spherical and smooth microcarriers.

Researchers found both grooved and smooth microcarriers were effective in supporting the production of the skeletal muscle fibers that form the basis of skeletal muscle tissue.

The researchers even formed the harvested tissue into a patty that was cooked in a frying pan with olive oil, which produced the surface texture and appearance of a traditional hamburger patty.

The final structure, however, “still does not approach the striking alignment of muscle fibers in skeletal muscle,” they wrote, meaning more work is needed to grow meat that mimics the texture and quality of biologically derived meat.

“While our initial observations show the promise of edible microcarriers to support a cookable cultured bovine meat product that exhibits browning, future studies will be needed to fully assess the sensory and nutritional properties of cultured meat produced with edible microcarriers,” researchers explained.

Rachel Adams joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products INSIDER, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. Adams left Informa Markets in 2019.

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