Would you like that burger medium rare, well-done, or lab-grown?

Researchers in South Korea say they’ve developed a new way to make lab-grown meat taste like the real deal. It may look like a transparent, bubble gum pink-coloured disc, but scientists hope it could revolutionise the meat on people’s plates.

Lab-grown meat — also called cultured meat or cell-based meat — is emerging as an alternative to conventional meat, offering the same nutritional benefits and sensory experience without the carbon footprint.

South Korean researchers say they’ve developed a way to make lab-grown meat taste and smell like conventional meat. (CNN)

It’s made by cultivating animal cells directly in a lab, grown on 3D structures called “scaffolds,” which allow the cells to multiply, eliminating the need to raise and farm animals.

Scientists have created everything from cultured meatballs to 3D-printed steaks. While some previous iterations of cultured beef have mimicked the look and feel of the real thing, according to a new study, they’ve overlooked a key element: taste.

But in the study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers say they have cracked the code, developing cultured meat that generates “grilled beef flavours upon cooking.”

“Flavour is the most important thing to make cultured meat be accepted as real,” Milae Lee, a co-author of the paper and a PhD student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told CNN.

To mimic the taste of conventional meat, Lee and her colleagues recreated the flavours generated during the Maillard reaction — a chemical reaction that occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar when heat is added, giving a burger that delicious, charred taste.

Scientists have developed a “flavour switchable scaffold” to mimic the enticing flavour and aroma of grilled beef. (CNN)

They do this by introducing a switchable flavour compound into a gelatin-based hydrogel, to form something called a functional scaffold, which Lee described as the “basic composition of the cultured meat”.

The flavour compound, which consists of a flavour group and two binding groups, stays in the scaffold until heated. It “switches on” when it is cooked for five minutes at a temperature of 150 degrees, releasing meaty flavours in a replication of the Maillard reaction, Lee said.

Because the cultured meat is not yet edible, the researchers used an electronic nose, which “mimics the nosing system of humans,” Lee said, to test the aromas of the cultured meat, and see how they compare to conventional meat.

For this study, the researchers focused on adding “meaty” and “savoury” flavours, Lee said, but the flavour agent could also be adapted to incorporate other flavours — like the fattiness that comes from a juicy rib-eye, for example.

The research focused on the science behind the taste of lab-grown meat, rather than the commercialisation of the process, which is why the scientists used non-food grade substances. But they believe the strategy can be applied to conventional edible substances, Lee said.

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They also plan to reduce animal products used in the process, including the gelatin-based hydrogel, to work towards a lab-grown meat almost entirely free of animal-derived substances.

Livestock farming is responsible for 6.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year, according to UN data. That’s around 12 per cent of all human-caused emissions. Beef production is the most carbon-intensive.

Cultured meat is positioned as a climate-friendly substitute to cattle beef, though some studies say its potential environmental impact could be overstated and depends on finding less energy-intensive production methods.

“Lab-grown meat has enormous potential to contribute to sustainable diets but its flavour is likely just one small component of whether it is successful,” said Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental science professor at the University of Miami, who was not involved in the research.

“A lot of whether and how quickly lab-grown meat becomes acceptable or widespread is dependent on the actions of powerful meat and dairy companies,” she told CNN.

Researchers mimicked the taste of conventional meat by recreating the flavours generated during the Maillard reaction, which gives meat a charred taste. (CNN)

There has already been pushback in the US. In May, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned the sale of lab-grown meat in the state in what he said was an effort to protect farmers and ranchers.

“Today, Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals,” DeSantis said in a statement at the time.

But elsewhere in the US, it’s possible to get lab-grown chicken, although not yet beef.

In 2023, the US Department of Agriculture gave the green light for two companies — Good Meat and Upside Foods — to begin selling their cultured chicken products, becoming the second jurisdiction after Singapore where consumers could buy it.

The companies debuted their chicken at high-end restaurants in the US last year.

In May, Huber’s Butchery in Singapore became the first retail store to sell cultured meat, a shredded chicken by Good Meat made with just 3 per cent cultivated meat. The rest is plant-based ingredients, according to Good Meat’s website.

Now that the research team in South Korea has found a piece of the puzzle to improve the flavour of lab-grown meat, the next challenge is to marry that taste with cultured meats that better mimic the appearance and texture of the real thing — the pink gelatinous blob is unlikely to make the menu.

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