Is Lab-Grown Meat Good for Us?

No saturated fat, no heme iron, no growth hormone—cultured meat seems to have many potential benefits.
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Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown hamburger. (Reuters/David Parry)

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.

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Marta Zaraska is a writer based in France. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Newsweek.

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