Chinese researchers develop a new way to mass produce lab grown meatballs

New meatballs have more protein, less fat.
Ameya Paleja

Research collaboration between two institutions in China has resulted in the development of lab-grown pork meatballs that have more protein and less fat as compared to those made from conventional meat, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. 

Lab cultured meat is considered a viable alternative to sourcing animal meats in a much more sustainable way. Estimates suggest that culturing meat in the lab requires very little land in comparison and can greatly help in the reduction of greenhouse emissions associated with traditional animal rearing. 

In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved the first cultured meat products for sale, which is expected to be similar approvals in other countries too. To deliver cultured meat, researchers need to grow cells procured from the animals in large quantities inside the lab. More importantly, cultured meat needs to resemble real meat in texture and taste.  

How did the researchers do this? 

Researchers at the Tsinghua University and Nanjing Agricultural University in China cultured muscle cells and fat cells separately in the laboratory before putting them together in a 3D-printed mold. They then used an enzyme to create centimeter-scale meatballs. 

The cells were grown on an edible 3D micro-carrier made out of porous gelatin. The micro-carrier also serves as a scaffold for cell expansion, wherein the researchers found that the cell expansion occurred at an accelerated pace. Compared to previous studies, where expansion rates were 10-fold over a seven-day period, the researchers found that their micro-carrier delivered a 20-fold expansion in the same time period. 

The researchers also compared the nutritional content of their cultured meat with shizitou, a classic Chinese meatball dish available in the market. Their analysis showed that the cultured meatballs contained 70 percent protein, four percent fat, six percent carbohydrate, and essential minerals like zinc, calcium, and iron. 

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The store-bought meatball dish had only one-fifth the content of protein while the fat content was three times high, although it contained fewer calories.

Large scale manufacturing

The methods deployed by the researchers also make it easy to manufacture these meatballs at scale. The two cell types used in the process can be grown in separate bioreactors at scale before being combined with the special enzyme and then molded to deliver meatballs. 

When compared to lab-cultured beef that needed to look a certain way to replace the real deal, meatballs or sausages are typically relatively simpler to achieve. It was only in 2019 that the research team at Nanjing Agricultural University produced their first cultured pork. A year later, the team was able to produce 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of the meat in just 20 days. 

Now, in a matter of a few years, the researchers have managed to make meat products that look like the real deal and are working to produce them for the masses.

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