The world’s first lab-grown hamburger got a taste test today in London, and it needs ketchup, mustard, and onions: Food critics said the burger’s flavor “wasn’t unpleasant” but was bland, like an “animal protein cake.” The texture resembled meat but Hanni Ruetzler, an Austrian nutritionist, said “I miss the salt and pepper.”
The taste test, which included Ruetzler and Chicago-based writer Josh Schonwald, was ultimately a publicity stunt designed to boost interest in lab-grown meat, a potential food source proponents bill as an ethical alternative to slaughtering animals for food. It will be an expensive alternative: The 5-ounce burger grilled for today’s event cost about $330,000 and was the culmination of five years of effort.
“It’s a very good start,” said Dutch scientist Mark Post, the lead researcher of the team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands that created the burger. Post admitted the flavor wasn’t perfect because the meat lacked natural beef fat. His team is working on adding enough lab-grown fat to improve the taste.
Post’s team grew the “cultured beef” in lab dishes, strand by strand, using muscle stem cells taken from the shoulders of two cows. Each strand was about as long as a grain of rice. They strengthened the bits of muscle by making them contract with electric currents. The team then froze the muscle strands until they had cultured enough—20,000—to produce the lunch-sized hamburger used in Monday’s taste test.
Growing larger chunks of meat wasn’t possible because the researchers would have needed blood vessels to supply them with nutrients and oxygen. The cultured beef, once grown, had a whitish appearance, so Post’s team added red beetroot juice and saffron to make it look like something consumers would buy at a meat market.
Today, Google co-founder Sergey Brin revealed himself as the mystery financial sponsor of the project. In a video, Brin said he believes cultured meat, once mass produced, could be an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional meat farming.
Extremist animal-rights group PETA has also offered its approval to the project. “As long as there’s anybody who’s willing to kill a chicken, a cow, or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk told the Associated Press.
But lab-made meat might only be edible for the wealthy: Post estimated it could cost $30 a pound once it becomes commercially available. “We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” he admitted. In the meantime, Post said, it will probably take another 10 years or more of development before cultured beef is ready for supermarkets.