Science & Environment

What does a stem cell burger taste like?

The first lab-grown burger has now been cooked in a frying pan and tasted by two food writers. But did it live up to all its hype?

The event certainly did. It had the surreal vibe of a live TV food show rather than a science press conference, with presenter Nina Hossain fielding questions.

Chef Richard McGeown was tasked with frying the patty. He commented on its "fantastic colour" and its "nice inviting aroma", but from where the media team sat, there was not a whiff of burger reaching our nostrils.

"It's literally like cooking any other burger I've experienced before, a nice and pleasant aroma but very subtle at this stage," added McGeown.

The "cultured beef" is grown from stem cells taken from a cow and could feed people meat in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, according to the team that developed it.

But now that it has been tasted for the first time, is it realistic to believe we could ever order it up with a side of fries from our local burger joint?

Mark Post of Maastricht University and the man behind the patty, previously said that for it to be a success it would have to "look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing".

It must be said that the cultured beef did start to resemble a real burger, but it seemed to turn brown a lot more slowly than a conventional burger might, with some of its brown hue perhaps attributable to the copious amount of butter that was added to the pan.

Hanni Ruetzler, a food researcher from the Future Food Studio, tasted a mouthful as Prof Post was still fielding questions. She first smelled it and also carefully prodded it with her fork as if testing for rigidity.

After chewing, she said she had expected a softer texture and later commented on its crunchy surface.

"There is really a bite to it, there is quite some flavour with the browning. I know there is no fat in it so I didn't really know how juicy it would be, but there is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, it's not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect.

"This is meat to me... It's really something to bite on and I think the look is quite similar."

Though it had a buttery outside, there wasn't such an "intense meat flavour" on the inside, she added, though even tasting blind she would still say it was meat, and not a soya copy.

Burger
The burger had to be coloured with beetroot juice as the cultured beef was white

The second taster, food author Josh Schonwald, said what was "most conspicuously different" about it was its flavour, spice and the lack of fat, but that the bite did feel "like a conventional hamburger".

But for him it was hard to get past the lack of ketchup, onions and bacon.

The breadcrumbs, egg powder and seasoning that were added for flavour must certainly have helped with its taste. It was also coloured with beetroot and saffron - as the stem cell strands on their own are an unappetising pasty colour.

The burger was only half eaten and several journalists requested a sample. But it was deemed unfair to share as there would not be enough to go around. To ease the frustrated crowd Prof Post announced he might save some for his children.

He added that he was happy with the comments from the two tasters and that his team would be working on the lack of fat content.

Biting the stem cell burger
Mr Schonwald said he missed the fat, but that the "general bite" was authentic

Whether or not vegetarians could eat the produce is still open to debate, but Prof Post said that his team was catering for beef eaters and that "vegetarians should remain vegetarians, that's even better for the environment".

For the burger to be approved to market a "dossier of evidence" would be needed to show that the product is safe, nutritionally equivalent to existing meat products and will not be at risk of misleading the consumer, said the Food Standards Agency.

Dr Iain Brassington, a bioethicist, at the University of Manchester, said it was easy to dismiss the inevitable arguments against it, such as the "frankenfoods gambit - the idea that this process interferes with nature".

"All food production interferes with nature - wheat, for example, is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding, and is grown on land that has been systematically altered for the purpose.

"If you don't want food that's the product of interference with nature, you're probably going to be hungry."

While it may be hard to imagine that one day we could pick up a packet of cultured beef from our local supermarket, Prof Post admitted it might well be between 10-20 years away.

And there's no doubt that the world will be keeping close watch on its progress.

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