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Lab-Grown Meat in Restaurants: The Good, The Bad, and The Tasty

by | Nov 3, 2019

Winston Churchill first mentioned the concept of lab-grown meat in 1931, long before it officially entered the world lexicon in 2013. In his 1931 essay, “Fifty Years Hence,” Churchill posited that the new synthetic superfoods would be “practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset…”

Want to know what else he said?

We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

Churchill conception of lab-grown meat was decades ahead of his time.

Today, we’re on the verge of a food revolution. Lab-grown meat, once unthinkable to food purists, is here to stay. Not only are “fake meat” costs positioning it as a real meat alternative, but taste tests are also indicating that chemists can produce “real” meat in the lab. The results, so far, have been nothing short of amazing.

Today, we’re going to look at these lab-grown foods — both vegetable and tissue-based — and talk about what they can mean for your restaurant.

Understanding Lab-grown Foods

By now, most of us have heard about the benefits of alternative proteins. The Impossible Burger is now a featured item on the Burger King menu. It’s served in trendy restaurants and found on over 9,000 restaurant menus. However, these plant-based meat alternatives aren’t exactly a new invention. The restaurant industry has been serving up plant-based alternatives for years. People have always been drawn to them. Yet, the demand for these foods has skyrocketed today.

Let’s try to put the popularity of plant-based meat replacements into context.

The sales of plant-based foods grew 10x faster than all foods in 2018. At the same time, sales of cow’s milk were down 6% while plant-based milk purchases skyrocketed by 9%. Additionally, while sales of meat grew 2%, plant-based meats grew by a massive 24%. Obviously, “plant-based meats” are driving increased sales in the food and beverage sector. However, it’s not those frozen black bean burgers that are making consumers salivate. It’s something a little more complicated.

For starters, plant-based replacements have held their own for a while. Vegan cheeses like Daiya and plant-based eggs like JUST have been widely available in health food stores and vegan restaurants for years. Also, veggie burgers aren’t exactly a new idea. So, why are lab-grown meats like Impossible Burger creating such a buzz in the restaurant industry?

It’s all about taste. Lab-grown foods almost always have a single goal — making anything other than “x” taste like “x.” In our current food ecosystem, that means making plants taste like meat. However, plant-based food brands aren’t the only ones trying to create meat in a laboratory setting.

The Rise of Lab-Grown Foods

To start, let’s separate the two primary drivers of lab-grown foods.

  1. Growing identical foods by utilizing tissue samples.
  2. Recreating the taste of a specific food by using plant-based ingredients.

It’s important that we make this distinction upfront. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods Inc., and all the other rising “alternative protein” startups are already disrupting our food supply chain. They are joined by some surprising characters in our modern food ecosystem. Real meat produced in a lab using tissue cultures may very well change the way we farm and consume meat products.

For the time being, transforming tissue cultures into meat is still decades away in the making. Research groups like Memphis Meats and BlueNalu have some big investors in their corner (Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Bill Gates, to name a few). However, they’re still years away from making even a modest impact on the consumer market. As of last quarter, Memphis Meats’ beef product costs $600 an oz. That’s a far cry from the $300,000 it took to produce similar tissue-cultured meat in 2013.

The pundits tell us that we’re on the verge of a lab-grown meat revolution. Sure, consumers aren’t about shell out $100 for a chicken nugget. However, when we look at the evolution of tissue-cultured meat, we notice a clear trend. Prices are going down, and the demand for it is skyrocketing.

The Science Behind Lab-Grown Foods

Lab-grown meat in New York City.

The science behind these lab-grown meats is seemingly esoteric in nature.🤫

Tissue cultures swimming around in tanks of nutrients may sound akin to some experiment in a science fiction movie. However, there’s no question as to where we’re headed, at least in the food industry. The glass tanks overflowing with red-hued cultures and strange primordial bacteria may be the future of food.

But, lab-grown meats aren’t ready for mass production yet.

So, let’s take a look at the other food on the list — foods that taste like other foods.

Using a unique combination of plant products to create a burger that has the taste, texture, and consistency of beef (complete with blood-red drippings) is nothing short of amazing. And, it’s not just beef. You can get vegan fish you can flake with a fork that tastes like the real thing. Are you an egg fan but have to watch your cholesterol levels? You may want to try Just Eggs, a vegan egg-alternative made from mung beans.

Be aware, however, that lab-grown foods are highly processed in nature. Beyond Burgers contain over 20 ingredients — including things like pea protein, bamboo cellulose, and refined coconut oil. In fact, all of the “fake” meats we see on the market are highly processed.

That may be a concern for health-conscious consumers. Also, there isn’t any strong evidence that points to these alternative proteins being healthier than red meat. That isn’t stopping consumers from ingesting them, however. 66% of people are trying to eat less red meat. This coincides with some of the massive sales that these lab-grown meat companies have been seeing. In fact, sales at Beyond Meats shot up above 230% in 2018 — with quarterly sales topping $60 million.

So, how did we get here?

A Quick History of Lab-Grown Foods

You may think that these new faux meat companies are paving their own paths. However, this isn’t the first time people have relied on meat alternatives. Buddhists in China have been using tofu as a meat substitute since 965 C.E. Also, the first veggie burger was dropped on the market in 1982.

But, let’s take a trip in our 9Fold time machine — all the way back to 1931. Around the time Winston Churchill made his poignant predictions, the Seventh-day Adventists created Loma Linda Foods to bring soy-based and wheat-based fake meats to the market.

Of course, this wasn’t a massive success (especially for restaurants). However, it does highlight that even in America, we’ve been enjoying faux meats for over 80 years. But, let’s be honest. We’re talking about lab-grown foods here. Veggie burgers and tofu patties hardly count as “lab-grown” meats. So, what does the lab-grown foods timeline look like?

The Lab-Grown Foods Timeline

  • 2013: The first lab-grown burger was created by a Dutch researcher. Not only did this first burger cost $300,000, but it also had a massive environmental footprint. Also, it tasted terrible.
  • 2015: Beast Burger (a Beyond Burger brand) made its debut in the frozen aisle section. Using pea protein, Beyond Meats was able to imbue its burger product with a characteristically beefy texture. However, it didn’t quite taste like beef. Although the taste wasn’t offputting, it was clear that the Beast Burger would never be a star in the mainstream food culture.
  • 2016: The Impossible Burger launches. It looks like beef, tastes like beef, and bleeds like beef.
  • 2017: JUST begins working on cultured chicken nuggets.
  • 2017: Finless starts working on cultured fish products.

From here, both Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger worked on making improvements until both launched new products in 2019. Since then, lab-grown meats have continued to explode in popularity. Prices are still high ($100 for a single nugget). However, competition is heating up, and Silicon Valley money is flowing.

Will Consumers Eat Lab-Grown Meat?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. How receptive are diners to lab-grown foods? We created an entire post about how much consumers crave fake meat.

So, we’re going to discuss tissue cultures here.

For starters, consumers are trying to eat less red meat. The keto craze that’s still in full swing is helping animal products maintain some momentum. However, the younger crowds are falling off the meat bandwagon. Today, 25% of the 25 to 35-year-old age demographic claims to be vegetarian or vegan.

And restaurants are taking note of the fact. McDonald’s now sells vegan burgers. Burger King and White Castle have started serving up Impossible meat products, and trendy chains (like Chipotle) are making a move towards vegan options.

But why?

Surveys show that the vast majority of vegans don’t eat meat for one reason — animal cruelty. In fact, 80% of vegans claim that they don’t eat meat because of the animals — health reasons don’t factor into the equation. Sure, you can distance yourself from the factory farms by only purchasing farm-raised meats.

But, what if you could skip killing animals entirely? What if you could still gorge on bacon for that Keto diet without slaughtering the pig?

Here’s where we run into a problem: 2/3rds of consumers still say no in such a scenario.

Lab-Grown Meat: Coming to a Restaurant Near You?

So, will diners see lab-grown meats on the menu anytime soon? Here’s a revelation: Lab-grown meats from companies like Memphis Meats are actually called “cultured meats.” Why? Because there’s a war percolating in the background between lab-based meat providers, corporate farming operations, and the FDA.

So, as of this moment, all lab-grown meat must be labeled as “cultured meat.” That’s a little problematic. Why? “Cultured meat” is only valuable to restaurants if consumers see it as a meaningful alternative to conventional meat. In every poll we’ve seen so far, consumers aren’t especially keen on “cultured meat.”

51% of Millennials say yes, but only 11% of those 55 years of age and over give the same answer.

So, for now, there’s no real answer as to when lab-grown meats will feature in mainstream restaurants. However, with veggie-based meats dominating the market and consumers increasingly worried about animal welfare, the time may approach sooner than we think.

Lab-Grown Meat and Online Ordering

When it comes to lab-grown foods, we’re still stuck in the Age of Vegetables. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the dominant market leaders. However, experts are predicting that “cultured meats” will make an entrance onto the restaurant scene in ten years. The trend has already begun. Meet Bistro in Vitro, the world’s first (albeit fictitious) in-vitro meat restaurant. You can book a virtual table and order virtual in-vitro entrees. Each dish has a star rating. A one-star rating means that the dish won’t reach restaurant tables anytime soon. Five-star ratings, however, indicate that a particular dish could be produced right now.

But, let’s talk about TODAY. You probably landed on this page because your restaurant is looking to stay ahead of consumer trends.

That said, there’s no bigger trend than online ordering. 60% of US adults order out at least once a week. With 9Fold, your customers can order piping hot burgers in their bathrobes, without interrupting their Netflix binge-watching session. Contact us for more information. We won’t take a percentage of your profits or require you to sign over your first-born’s soul. Can you really say the same about those 3rd party delivery apps?

Own a restaurant? Let’s chat.

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