How Fake Dairy Could Impact Our Diets

I still can’t believe it’s not butter!

Key Takeaways

  • Lab-grown "clean" meat is a technical challenge, and currently way more expensive than "real" meat.
  • Unstructured animal products like milk, pate, and eggs are much easier to replicate.
  • Prime steak isn’t the goal. Clean meat will probably show up in processed foods first.
Young child drinking a plant-based milk.
 Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

There are two kinds of "fake" meat: real meat protein that is grown in the lab, and plant-based products that are artfully concocted to look, feel, and taste as much like meat as possible. But lab-grown meat isn’t just about hamburgers and chicken nuggets. It’s also about milk, cheese, and eggs.

Fake meat is so hot right now. Environmentally it’s way, way cleaner than growing cows, pigs, and chickens. It will also end up cheaper. And if you think to yourself, "I'll never eat a steak grown in a laboratory," you’re missing the point.

Lab meat will probably end up filling hamburger buns and other mystery meat products before it makes its way to your backyard grill. It could up-end the entire food industry, and you’ll be happy about it. But it’s not ready for the mainstream just yet.

"Most of the challenges in clean meat regard the difficulty of scaling up production, and the long production time (3 weeks+), which leads to high costs, and loss of cell purity," Berlin-based bioprocessing and cultured meat expert Jordi Morales Dalmau told Lifewire via instant message. "This creates a huge opportunity for new companies, with non-structured products like eggs, cheese or paté."

Texture And Structure

Lab meat, or clean meat, is made from a culture of real meat cells, grown in a "serum" of nutrients. This sounds disgusting, but way less disgusting than what goes into a cheap hot dog. There are several problems with making meat this way. One is that the animal serum is very expensive.

A plant-based burger
Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images 

"Animal serum provides growing cells with essential trace nutrients and growth factors, writes Bettina Hudry Gerez on the Alcimed blog. "While non-animal serum replacements are available, they usually have proprietary formulations and are even more expensive." That’s one reasons that lab meat is still around 4x the price of meat from animals. 

This growth medium is also "typically made from animal fetuses," says Morales Dalmau, "which is not very animal friendly."

The other big problem is structure. To arrive at the texture of a juicy steak, you need to grow the cells on a scaffold that gives them the right structure, otherwise they grow into a formless mush. These scaffolds are not yet edible, which makes things even harder. And the growing also takes time.

Just like growing a cow from birth to slaughter age takes weeks, growing cow cells also takes time—around four weeks. On the other hand, there’s way less waste, pollution, and carbon emissions with lab meat. 

"Lab-grown meat isn’t just about hamburgers and chicken nuggets. It’s also about milk, cheese, and eggs."

This is one reason why early lab meat results have been used to make hamburger. And it’s also a reason why lab-grown animal proteins are perfect for milk products, and eggs. And because eggs and milk products are so widely used in prepared and packaged foods, they could be the real game-changers of the lab "meat" revolution.

Perfect Day

Milk is as structure-free as you could want. It is fat suspended in water, with proteins and other bits mixed in. That means it sidesteps all the structural problems of clean meat.

San Francisco-area company Perfect Day has worked out how to take real milk proteins, and ferment them in a special mix of microflora, instead of using animal serum. "Because our animal-free dairy proteins are identical to those found in cow’s milk," write the founders, "they deliver the same creamy, melty, silky taste and texture of conventional dairy that plant-based alternatives just can’t match."

The result is ice-cream, cream, milk, and cheese that is vegan, Kosher-certified, and lactose-free. Crucially, though, this is still actual milk protein, just grown without a cow. 

Gross?

In the end, though, the technical problems will be solved, and the food industry will use these ingredients in its products. The main barrier, then, will be customer acceptance. Given the amount of gross junk that’s already in our meat-based food products, and the ethics of the entire animal-based food chain, clean meat deserves its name.

Will we end up grilling lab-cultured steaks in our backyards? Maybe, or maybe not. But even if we keep growing cows for steaks, clean meat will almost certainly end up in everything else. Perhaps real beef and chicken will become an expensive delicacy, just like they were before industrial-level production drove the prices down to unsustainable levels.

Meat should be expensive. Or rather it is already expensive. It’s just that we aren’t the ones paying for it.