Conventional meat (the kind that grows inside animals, not petri dishes) is, in several ways, not exactly good for our health. Research shows that regularly indulging can lead to higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer.
Professor Mark Post of the University of Maastricht, the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger, believes that test tube meat will be better for us. “We gain greater control over what the meat consists of, for example its fat content,” he says. “And the reduction in the number of farmed animals reduces the chance of zoonosis,“ or infectious diseases that spread from animals to people. So how exactly could meat grown in labs be better for our health than the meat that is grown in cows or pigs?
According to Joan Salge Blake, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the key factors is saturated fat. “If they are going to make their own fats, they will be able to replace the saturated fatty acids with, for example, omega-3 fatty acids,” she said.
While saturated fatty acids are known to contribute to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, omega-3s (found naturally in fish or flaxseed oil) are a healthier option—they reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of heart disease and arthritis. If Post is right, and in 10 to 20 years we have lab-grown burgers and sausages on the shelves of our supermarkets, they may well come in “no cholesterol” and “no saturated fats” varieties.
They might come in “no heme iron” versions, too. Post’s burger was most likely heme-iron free. In the future, he says, “it is conceivable that we will try and make reduced heme-iron containing meat.”
Conventional wisdom says that heme iron, the type of iron found only in meat and fish, is actually good for us. After all, it’s much better absorbed by the body than the iron found commonly in plants (called non-heme iron), and, as such, more likely to keep anemia at bay. Yet recent studies show that there is also a darker side to heme iron. If consumed, it may raise the risk of heart disease and some cancers. It has also been linked to type 2 diabetes.
“Both the iron and the fat content of the meat are likely relevant risks for this disease,” says Desley White, lecturer in dietetics at Plymouth University, and the author of a study on dietary heme iron which appeared in the July issue of Advances in Nutrition. She points out, though, that heme iron is only partly to blame for type 2 diabetes. “If you ate only cultured meat, heme iron-free, yet kept the same [amount] of activity, and stayed overweight, I doubt you would avoid diabetes, though you might delay it for some time. But if eating fat-free cultured meat would also mean a drop in calorie intake, then there would be an added decrease in diabetes risk,” she says.
It is also possible that the cultured meats of the future may not contain L-carnitine, a substance found naturally in red meat (but also present in much smaller amounts in fish, poultry, asparagus and avocados) —and that is likely good news, too. A study published in April in Nature Medicine showed that L-carnitine gets broken down by bacteria in the gut, and that a chemical resulting from this process ups the risk of heart disease.
If in vitro meats were produced using current technology, they could lack nutrients that are essential for good health. Post’s beef patty (which was really just a proof of concept), consisted only of muscle fibers. There was no fat in it, no blood or blood vessels, no connective tissues. This, according to Post, means that the range of nutrients in cultured beef would be different than in conventional meat. But he and his colleagues are working to change that. “Once all of these other components are included in cultured meat there is no reason for it to be less healthy than conventional meat,” he says.
Physician Neal Barnard, the author of several studies on red meat’s impact on health, believes that just like we now have orange juice fortified with Vitamin D, in the future we could heave cultured steaks or bacon fortified with Vitamin B12 (which we need to keep our nerve and blood cells healthy). “We have not looked into it yet, but it’s possible,” Post said.
Yet the story of healthy (or unhealthy) meats is not just a story of nutrients, of fats and of cholesterol. This story begins on farms. Nowadays, most animals raised for meat are raised in CAFOs—confined animal feeding operations. CAFOs not only lead to animal suffering, but also dirt, drugs, and disease. Workers employed in CAFOs may suffer from asthma, eye inflammation, and chronic bronchitis. That, obviously, would not be an issue for technicians growing meat in sterile labs.
What’s more, pollution from factory farms is a health hazard for surrounding communities. A study conducted in North Carolina found that people who live near hog farms have more headaches, runny noses, diarrhea, and burning eyes than those who live in cleaner neighborhoods. CAFOs also risk contaminating drinking water with nitrates from the animals’ waste. If ingested, nitrates may cause miscarriages, certain types of cancers, congenital malformations, and a “blue baby syndrome”—a condition which can cause comas in infants.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, points out that replacing CAFOs with labs will mean replacing dirt with sterility. “There will be health benefits for us, because this meat will be clean,” she says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meat and poultry are the most common food sources of fatal infections, responsible for 29 percent of food-poisoning related deaths in the U.S., largely due to Salmonella and Listeria infections. Salmonella are bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of animals such as cattle or poultry. When the animals are stressed (which happens often in CAFOs and slaughterhouses), they shed large amounts of this bacteria into their feces, which can contaminate the meat. Later, if it’s undercooked or badly handled, this can mean food poisoning. In recent months 134 people in 13 states were infected with a strain of Salmonella from chicken meat.
Eating conventional meat can also lead to listeria, E. coli or Campylobacter infections. It can mean toxoplasmosis (dangerous for pregnant women) or, in rare cases, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That doesn’t mean that lab-grown meat would be 100 percent safe, just much safer. Professor Amee Manges of the University of British Columbia, who has published studies on food-borne pathogens, points out that cultured meat could still get infected with bacteria during processing.
Cultured meat—at least produced the way Post does it—would also mean no growth hormones (banned in the European Union, but still approved for use in Canada and the U.S.), which according to the EU’s Scientific Committee for Veterinary Measures, can have “developmental, neurobiological, and carcinogenic effects.” Lab grown meat would not contain residues of pesticides (applied to the animals to control insects), no tranquillizers, no de-wormers.
For now, though, lab-grown meats still require the use of antibiotics. In conventional meat production antibiotics are given routinely to healthy animals to promote growth. They are used so freely, that according to the Food and Drug Administration, they now constitute 72 percent of all U.S. antibiotic sales. This, in turn, can lead to the emergence of resistant bacteria. Post’s lab-grown beef required antibiotics, too. “Cultured muscle has no immune system, so it was necessary. In the future, once production is scaled up and automated, it could be done in closed sterile systems so the antibiotics will no longer be needed,” he says.
With meat grown in sterile labs, we could also worry less about emerging diseases, such as avian flu and swine flu, which are associated with intensive farming. And if scientists could produce exotic meats like chimpanzee in their petri dishes, there would be less risk of retroviruses and herpes being imported with bushmeat into the U.S. from Africa. Right now, 180,000 pounds of bushmeat enters our country illegally each year. According to Post, growing exotic meats in a lab wouldn’t be much more difficult than growing beef or chicken.
Yet there remains the problem of the “yuck factor” of what many already call “frankenmeat.” Some worry that we don’t know what eating stem cells may mean for our health down the road. Peter Verstrate, a food technician who worked with Post on the development of the cultured beef, reassures: “Stem cells are everywhere. In your muscle tissue there are stem cells, too. The only thing we do is take them out and tell them to multiply and to become muscle tissue. Just like they do in your arm or in your leg when you have a wound, to repair the muscle.”
Marta Zaraska is a writer based in France. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Newsweek.