Josh Schonwald, a U.S.-based food writer, tastes the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London, on Aug. 5. The burger is the result of years of research by Dutch scientist Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht, who is working to show how meat grown in petri dishes might one day be a true alternative to meat from livestock.
LONDON — After years of research and weeks of buildup, taste testers on Monday finally bit into a burger created from stem cells in a culture dish rather than meat from a farm or a store.
The burger was cooked in front of reporters and taste-tested by Chicago-based author and food writer Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Rutzler.
Although they struggled to decide whether they liked the taste, both were pleasantly surprised at the texture and juicyness given the absence of natural fats.
"It wasn't unpleasant," said Schonwald.
"There is quite some intense flavor," Rutzler said, although she added that it needed seasoning. "The look was quite similar to meat. It has quite a bite."
She added: "The surface of the meat was crunchy — surprisingly. The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat substitute like soya or whatever."
Funded by Google co-founder
Monday's high-profile tasting at West London's Riverside Studios, broadcast online via streaming video, served as the public unveiling for a strain of "cultured beef" developed by University of Maastricht physiologist Mark Post. He declared the taste test a success.
"I'm very excited. It took a long time to get this far," said Post. "I think this is a very good start. I'm very happy with it."
Aided by a €250,000 ($330,000) donation from Google co-founder and entrepreneur Sergey Brin, Post has been working since 2008 to produce a palatable food product from lab-grown muscle cells. He and other scientists involved in similar projects aren't doing it just for the novelty. They see test-tube meat as a means to head off what could become a global food crisis.
Meat production already requires more than half of the world's estimated agricultural capacity, and experts say that proportion is expected to grow dramatically in the decades ahead, due to a demand for meat fueled by rising affluence in China and other parts of the world. Studies have shown that lab-grown meat production methods can be more energy-efficient and result in lower greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional livestock farming. Artificial meat would also eliminate the need to raise and slaughter billions of farm animals.
Post's method still requires cattle, to contribute stem cells as well as the fetal calf serum that feeds the muscle cells. But the cells can be extracted from live cattle during a biopsy. Post says one sample could be used to create up to 20,000 tons of cultured beef.
Recipe for a lab-burger
The process involves nurturing the extracted cells so that they grow into small strands of muscle tissue in culture dishes. It takes about 20,000 of such strands to create one hamburger. For Monday's tasting, the muscle cells were mixed with other ingredients, such as salt, egg powder and bread crumbs (for taste and texture) as well as red beet juice and saffron (for color) to produce a 5-ounce patty. Then the patty was fried in a pan, seasoned with salt and pepper, and presented to the tasters.
The tasters said the burger was edible and had the texture of other meat but said more work was required to improve the taste.
"There is a leanness to it," food writer Schonwald said. "The absence of fat is what makes it taste different."
"I would say it is somewhere on the spectrum between a Boca Burger [soy burger brand] and McDonald's," he added. "The absence of fat makes a big difference. It has the texture, which I was not expecting. It was like an animal-protein cake."
Post said he would not let a reporter or the chef the chance to taste a piece of the burger, saying there was not enough to go around.
He said technology was making it easier to identify which naturally occurring ingredients could be used to improve the taste.
'I managed not to burn it'
The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown.
"It cooked like any other burger I've cooked before, it seems to give off a pleasant aroma," McGeown said. "It looks incredibly appetizing. I managed not to burn it."
Post acknowledges that there's not much of a market for a $330,000 hamburger patty, whether it comes from the lab or the butcher's shop. He sees cultured beef as a "step toward a solution to some pressing problems in global food production, not just an expensive burger."
Post says lab-grown meat will eventually become more palatable than plant-based meat substitutes, and less expensive than conventionally farmed beef. But that won't happen overnight: He says it could take 10 to 20 years for cultured meats to become commercially available.
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Alastair Jamieson is a London-based staff writer for NBC News Digital. Alan Boyle is NBC News Digital's science editor. Follow them on Twitter as @alastairjam and @b0yle.
First published August 5 2013, 7:26 AM