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Would you eat this lab-grown ‘beef rice’?

Scientists added bovine muscle and fat stem cells to cooked rice, giving it a slight nuttiness and an umami flavor like meat—and more protein than ordinary rice.

Would you eat this lab-grown ‘beef rice’?
[Source photo: Yonsei University]

Making “cultivated” meat by growing chicken or beef cells in a bioreactor isn’t easy or cheap. Startups in the space are struggling to scale up production. But new research suggests that instead of trying to re-create a steak or burger without an animal, food companies could make new hybrid foods—like beef rice, or rice infused with cow cells.

Scientists at South Korea’s Yonsei University added bovine muscle and fat stem cells to cooked rice, using fish gelatin and edible enzymes to help the cells stick and grow. After growing in a petri dish for a little more than a week, the cells were embedded throughout the rice, giving it a slight nuttiness and an umami flavor like meat—and more protein than ordinary rice. (The rice was also pink, but that was because of a component used in the cell culture medium, not because of the cow cells.)

“Our goal is to develop novel hybrid foods that have high nutritional value and sustainability beyond the value of meat,” says Sohyeon Park, the lead author of a new study about the research published in Matter.

[Image: Yonsei University]

“We have always attempted to use familiar ingredients in cultured meat,” she says. “This idea suddenly occurred to us while we were having lunch in our daily lives. At first, we started with no expectations, but I was very intrigued when I saw cells growing in rice grains.”

The process uses materials that are “all well-known and inexpensive food ingredients,” Park says. Rice serves as a scaffold for the cells to grow on, while also providing nutrients to the cells. While the study used cow cells from livestock, the process is designed to work with cells grown in a lab.

The researchers argue that adding protein and fat to the carbs in rice is a more sustainable way to create a “complete meal.” The rice had 8% more protein and 7% more fat after it was cultivated with animal cells. The researchers calculated that emissions from making protein this way would be around eight times less than from raising cattle for beef.

Of course, it’s not clear how hard it might be to convince consumers to eat it. While the promise of lab-grown meat was that it would be possible to make food that tastes exactly like meat—without the sustainability and ethical problems that come from raising livestock—a new type of rice seems less likely to satisfy omnivores with a craving for beef. It might be easier to try to rebrand rice and beans or other plant-based sources of protein that already exist.

But startups producing cultivated meat may eventually have to pivot to new options. Funding in the space has dried up. The two U.S. restaurants that started serving cultivated chicken last year have taken it off their menus. (Upside Foods, one of the startups making the product, told Fast Company it had “wrapped up” its dinner series and planned to take the product on the road, but didn’t respond to a question about whether its production was too low to supply multiple locations.) Upside Foods has also reportedly paused plans to build a massive new factory. Park says that cultivated meat’s “commercialization potential is still low.”

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Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley. More