Serving up the next alt-protein — cell-cultured beef rice

Thursday, 15 February, 2024

Serving up the next alt-protein — cell-cultured beef rice

From lab-grown chicken to cricket-derived protein, there are many innovative meat alternatives being developed.

Korean scientists from Yonsei University have added a new recipe to the list of alternative proteins — cultured beef rice — by growing animal muscle and fat cells inside rice grains. The method, presented February 14 in the journal Matter, resulted in a hybrid food that could provide a more affordable protein alternative with a smaller carbon footprint.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” said first author Sohyeon Park, who conducted the study under the guidance of corresponding author Jinkee Hong at Yonsei University, South Korea. “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

In animals, biological scaffolds help guide and support three-dimensional cell growth to form tissue and organs. To cultivate cell-cultured meat, the team mimicked this cellular environment, using rice. Rice grains are porous and have organised structures, providing a scaffold to house animal-derived cells in the nooks and crannies. Certain molecules found in rice can also nourish and promote the growth of these cells, making rice a suitable platform.

First, the team coated the rice with fish gelatin, a safe and edible ingredient that helps cells latch onto the rice better. Cow muscle and fat stem cells were then seeded into the rice and left to culture in the petri dish for nine to 11 days. The harvested final product is a cell-cultured beef rice with main ingredients that meet food safety requirements and have a low risk of triggering food allergies.

The researchers steamed the hybrid rice and performed various food industry analyses, including nutritional value, odour and texture. The findings revealed that hybrid rice has 8% more protein and 7% more fat than regular rice. Compared to the regular texture of rice, the hybrid was more firm and brittle. Hybrid rice with higher muscle content had beef- and almond-related odour compounds, while those with higher fat content had compounds corresponding to cream, butter and coconut oil.

The hybrid rice has a small carbon footprint, estimated to release less than 6.27 kg of CO2 for every 100 g produced, compared to beef which releases 49.89 kg.

The team is optimistic about commercialising the product because the hybrid meat has low food safety risks and a relatively easy production process. First, the team plans to create better conditions in the rice grain for both muscle and fat cells to thrive, which can further boost the nutritional value.

“I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice,” Park said. “Now I see a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food. It could one day serve as food relief for famine, military ration or even space food.”

Image credit: Yonsei University.

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