Will meat grown in a laboratory be healthy?

BACON GIVES YOU CANCER!

It doesn’t. We’ve all seen tabloid headlines like these about food, drink, and other products we consume in our daily lives. As with the vast majority of things though, everything is okay in moderation. A couple of glasses of wine at the weekend won’t damage your liver, whereas two bottles a day probably will.

The same goes for processed meat. Long term processed meat consumption has been associated with health problems for a while now, with diets very high in processed meat linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions.

I have a suspicion that future generations will look back on mass consumption of processed meat in a similar way to how we look back at rooms full of people smoking in the 1950s. Would you be surprised to hear of someone eating processed meat for two or even three meals a day? It’s probably quite common… I’m pretty sure I’ve done it plenty of times.

Will lab-grown meat be any healthier?

In theory, lab-grown meat could end up being healthier than factory farmed meat as scientists have more control over what is going to the final product.

The potential for increased nutrient fortification, customised cellular compositions, and optimal nutritional profiles, could all contribute to making lab-grown meat healthier than livestock-sourced meat. For example, levels of saturated fat can be deliberately kept low and replaced with healthier Omega 3 fatty acids.

As lab-grown meat is made in a strictly controlled sterile lab environment, it is also less likely to come into contact with the health hazards found on farms. Large numbers of animals living in crowded conditions create an environment rife with germs, so the meat-industry must take great care to avoid bacteria such as Salmonella and E. Coli being accidentally transmitted through the slaughter process.

Antibiotic resistance – a growing threat

Stemming the tide of antibiotic resistance could be an indirect but important public health benefit to come from the widespread adotpion of lab-grown meat.

To combat the bacteria and illnesses that can naturally occur in animals, the livestock industry pumps them with vast amounts of antibiotics. This overuse is a contributor to the issue of growing antibacterial resistance, where bacteria evolve to resist the frontline drugs we use to heal infections.

In some cases, highly resistant bacteria such as MRSA are showing resistance to drugs usually reserved as a last line of defence. Some researchers fear that antibiotic resistance could throw us back towards a medical dark age, where small infections could prove fatal. Any reduction lab-grown meat can bring to the overuse of antibiotics would certainly be a good thing for public health.

What makes something ‘natural’?

I find it interesting how some people take such an intense interest in what will be going into lab-grown meat, but tend to give factory farmed meat a free pass because it is ‘natural’. In fact, many are none-the-wiser as to what their meat has been treated with or had added to it.

Growth hormones such as testosterone and progesterone are examples of controversial substances that can be artificially added to livestock in order to promote their growth. They are already banned in Europe due to health concerns but still regularly used in the United States and other countries. Whilst there is still debate around whether these added hormones are bad for humans, they won’t be required at all for the production of lab-grown meat.

The scrutiny of what can and can’t go into lab-grown meat will be high, and strict regulations will be followed under laboratory conditions. It should not come as a surprise if the finished product ends up being healthier and more transparently labelled than plenty of processed meat found on supermarket shelves.

This series is exploring questions about lab grown meat. All views expressed are my own.