The next generation of food

Published 9:20 am Thursday, May 28, 2009

When you were a child and found yourself wondering what the future might be like, how did you imagine it?

Most of us fantasized about flying cars or even time machines. Maybe you envisioned robots as maids like they had on The Jetsons. As for me, I always thought it would include human teleporters and food generators like they had on Star Trek.

While we may still be many years away from having “Scotty” beam us up anywhere, it seems that the whole food generation idea may not be as far away as we thought.

What if you could buy chicken nuggets that never actually came from chickens, they were instead grown in a Petri dish? That may soon be possible thanks to a nonprofit research organization called New Harvest.

According to its website, “New Harvest was founded in 2004 to support the development of meat substitutes, with the long-term goal of delivering economically competitive alternatives to conventional meat production. The organization funds applied research in food science and provides a forum for sharing technical innovations.”

New Harvest has already produced a petri-dish batch of chicken nuggets and says the advantages of growing your meat instead of farming it are numerous.

“In vitro meat would reduce the demand for farm animals, slowing the spread of diseases like avian influenza and minimizing the meat industry’s enormous environmental footprint” according to New Harvest co-founder and John Hopkins University doctoral student Jason Matheny.

Creating your meat in a lab instead of on a farm would also allow researchers to ensure that the meat is free of harmful bacteria and even manipulate its nutritional content. According to Matheny, “You could replace the bad fats with good fats; you could have a hamburger that has the fat profile of salmon or an avocado.”

All of that is well and good but how do you get past the two biggest factors that will affect it with consumers…taste and the creepiness factor. I know the old theory says that everything tastes like chicken, but does that really include a meat that was grown by men and women in lab coats? Plus can we as a culture wrap our heads around the idea of eating a chicken sandwich that may or may not have been grown in your local high school’s lab class?

While there have been no official taste tests of their lab meat due to federal regulations prohibiting it, New Harvest is anticipating that vitro meat is only about 5 years away from appearing on the market, mostly in pre processed products like hamburgers and chicken nuggets.

While we may be able to get past the weirdness of lab grown meat (we still eat hot dogs and let’s be honest, very little is more disgusting than how they are made) I suggest that New Harvest send some researchers south for flavor ideas. We have some barbecue sauces in North Carolina that will make anything, even lab meat, taste delicious.

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