Over the last decade, news stories featuring the advent of lab meat technology and its pink and pasty results have been peppering the virtual landscape, showing up in places like NBC, Forbes and a number of other news outlets. It seems the lab grown burger is now ready for production, and, at some point in the future, for sale in your local stores and restaurants. It has been touted as a way to improve diets in emerging economies by introducing cheaply produced meat on their markets, but is it any healthier than its traditionally produced counterpart?
WHAT’S IN IT?
Lab grown meat is cultivated from animal cells, so, in the case of hamburger, the cells come from a cow. Unlike conventional meat, lab meat can be produced with far less fat, but not without the use of growth hormones, seeing how it has to grow quickly in order to be profitable (1). Since lab meat is real animal flesh, haem iron is present, as is the increased risk for cardiovascular disease and bowel cancer it represents (see my earlier post on iron). Producers are going out of their way to make sure this type of iron is included in the final product since they see any deviation from the real thing as a downside in terms of marketing (1).
No mention has been made regarding the presence of neu5gc in non-human mammals, nor of any possibility that lab meat can be produced without it (2). This is unfortunate given this molecule’s effects on the human body include a chronic state of low grade inflammation (for as long as meat and dairy are consumed), involvement in arteriosclerosis, cancer progression, and the facilitation of hemolytic ureic syndrome, among other things (3,4,5). “Neu5Gc is present both in endothelium overlying plaques and in subendothelial regions, providing multiple pathways for accelerating inflammation” in arteriosclerosis (3).
Neu5gc is a sialic acid present on cell surfaces of all mammals with the exception of humans. We do not produce it, but we have antibodies which, to the surprise of its discoverers, are unable to fight it off completely (4). When found setting up camp in our bodies it is there because we ingested it (5). It is the only known non-human dietary molecule that becomes incorporated onto human cell surfaces even after the immune system responds against it. The immune response to the ever-present molecule sets off a repeating cycle wherein the resulting chronic inflammation helps tumours grow even as antibody response is boosted. But it isn’t all bad news. All this research into what is now known as the “meat eater’s molecule” has yielded one surprising result: aggressively boosting antibody response against it may help fight the tumours it helps produce in the first place (4). Of course, staying away from eating the meat of four legged creatures, natural or lab made, would be the easiest way to avoid this whole cycle.
Lastly, animal protein is animal protein regardless of whether it comes from a slaughtered animal or artificially maintained animal cells. Recent evidence suggests animal protein may increase cardiovascular disease risk in healthy men after controlling for confounders such as saturated fat (7). Potential manufacturers have considered introducing plant protein into their final product but canned the idea as fears this may raise allergy issues for consumers prevailed (1).
Lab meat will give the environment and farm animals a break, to be sure, but, aside from containing less fat than conventional animal products, daily consumption will yield many of the same risk factors as conventional, organic, or wild caught meats.
- Datar I, Betti M. Possibilities for an in vitro meat production system. Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies, 2010;11:13-22.
- Varki A. Uniquely human evolution of silica acid genetics and biology. PNAS, 2010;107(2):8939-8946.
- Pham T, Gregg CJ, Karp F, Chow R, Padler-Karavani V, Cao H, Chen X, Witzum JL, Varki N, Varki A. Evidence for a novel human-specific xeno-auto-antibody response against vascular endothelium. Blood, 2009;114(25):5225-35.
- Hedlund M, Padler-Karavani V, Varki N, Varki A. Evidence for a human-specific mechanism for diet and antibody-mediated inflammation in carcinoma progression. PNAS, 2008;105(48):18936-41.
- Lofling JC, Paton AW, Varki NM, Paton JC, Varki A. A dietary non-human silica acid may facilitate hemolytic-uremic syndrome. Kidney Int., 2009;76(2):140-144.
- Varki N, Varki A. Diversity in cell surface silica acid presentations: implications for biology and disease. Laboratory Investigation, 2007;87:851-7.
- Preis SR, Stampfer MJ, Spiegelman D, Willett WC, Rimm EB. Dietary protein and risk of ischemic heart disease in middle-aged men. Am J Clin Nutr, 2010;92:1265-72.