In recent years, we’ve seen seismic shifts in our attitudes towards food. Increasingly conscious shoppers browsing the meat aisles at supermarkets aren’t just looking at price tags−health, ethical and environmental factors are also influencing their choices.
Food producers have responded in kind, and lab-grown meats are set to follow the wave of plant-based meat options that previously flooded shelves. Since the first reports of cultivated meat a decade ago, cellular agriculture technologies for harvesting and growing tissues from livestock have come a long way. Still, there’s a problem standing in the way of restaurant-quality lab-grown meat: fat.
Fat changes the texture, flavour and nutritional profile of meat, but, according to Shigeki Sugii, Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), it is still challenging to grow fat cells and tissue from agricultural species in the lab.
“Most of the protocols for growing fat cells are for human, mouse or rat cells,” explained Sugii. “Not so many studies were done using cells from agricultural species such as livestock and seafood.”
In a pair of review articles, Sugii’s team took an in-depth look at trends and opportunities in cultivated adipocyte, or fat cell, production, making several key recommendations on pathways to improve the cellular agriculture of alternative fat.
“From our analysis of over 500 studies that grew adipocytes from agricultural species, we found various differences in their experimental protocols,” Sugii said. Notably, fat cells from bovine, porcine, chicken and seafood are unique and require subtle differences in their optimal cell culture conditions.
As Sugii explained, porcine fat cells take about six days to fully mature from stem cells, while adipocytes from other species generally develop over 10 to 12 days. Similarly, chicken fat was the easiest to produce, requiring a growth medium containing only one type of fatty acid, whereas fat from other sources needed more complex chemical cocktails to coax them towards maturation.
Sugii and colleagues singled out cost-effectiveness as a central and crucial factor in ensuring that cultivated fat technologies are commercially viable. In this regard, Sugii pointed out that developing inexpensive food-grade culture media components will be paramount for keeping lab-grown meat costs accessible to most consumers.
“We still rely on many compositions of biomedical grade media that are too expensive to produce,” Sugii said, adding that finding alternative solutions is now a core research focus for the team. “While many companies and researchers have started to tackle with this problem, we would like more efforts and collaborations in this aspect so that we can achieve cost parity comparable to animal meat in the next several years.”
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).