‘Beefed-Up’ Rice Takes Lab-Grown Meat to the Next Level

Cultured beef rice, a novel hybrid of animal cells and rice grains, promises a more affordable and eco-friendly protein option for the future
Food & Nutrition
Gabrielle David
February 14, 2024

Amidst a burgeoning landscape of alternative protein sources, from lab-grown chicken to cricket-derived protein, a new offering emerges from the laboratories of Korean scientists: cultured beef rice. This novel concoction, unveiled in the journal Matter, represents a promising fusion of animal muscle and fat cells cultivated within rice grains. The result? A tantalizing prospect for a planet grappling with the environmental and ethical quandaries of industrial agriculture.

Growing animal muscle and fat cells inside rice grains. [Yonsei University]

Lead author Sohyeon Park, working under the mentorship of corresponding author Jinkee Hong at Yonsei University, South Korea, envisions a bright future for the innovation. “Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” says Park. “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

Drawing inspiration from the intricate biological scaffolds that facilitate the growth of tissues and organs in living organisms, the research team sought to leverage the porous and structured nature of rice grains to serve as a scaffold for animal-derived cells. Fish gelatin, a benign and edible substance, was employed to enhance cellular adhesion to the rice matrix. Cow muscle and fat stem cells found their home within the rice grains, undergoing a meticulous culturing process spanning 9 to 11 days within Petri dishes. 

Scientists cultured cow muscle and fat cells in rice grains to create a hybrid food. [Yonsei University]

This novel method addresses several of the challenges faced by other methods of producing lab-grown meat. “Mammalian-derived ingredients or inedible materials are still used in producing other lab-grown meat,” explains Park. “This point is delaying commercialization from a food safety or price competitiveness perspective. Unlike these, the materials used in producing Cultured Beef Rice (rice grains, fish gelatin, and Microbial transglutaminase; mTG), except the cells, are all well-known and inexpensive food ingredients.”

The resultant product, cell-cultured beef rice, not only meets stringent food safety standards but also boasts nutritional enhancements over its conventional counterpart. Through meticulous analyses encompassing nutritional composition, aroma, and texture, researchers unveiled that the hybrid rice exhibited an 8% increase in protein content and a 7% rise in fat content compared to regular rice. Furthermore, variations in muscle and fat content yielded distinct olfactory profiles, ranging from savory beef and almond notes to creamy undertones reminiscent of butter and coconut oil.

“We usually obtain the protein we need from livestock, but livestock production consumes a lot of resources and water and releases a lot of greenhouse gas,” Park notes. The production of hybrid rice demonstrates a significantly diminished carbon footprint, estimated at less than 6.27 kg of CO2 per 100 g of protein produced, in contrast to the 49.89 kg emitted by beef production. 

Economically, hybrid rice presents an attractive alternative, with projected costs of approximately $2.23 per kilogram, a fraction of the $14.88 price tag associated with beef. “Thankfully, hybrid rice's affordable ingredients and simple production process result in low economic costs,” explains Park. Future efforts to scale up production are set to maintain affordability as a key focus, with plans to develop cost-effective culture media for cell production.

The research team also aims to optimize conditions within the rice grains to foster the robust growth of both muscle and fat cells, thereby further enhancing the nutritional profile of the hybrid product. “As the cell content increases, not only the nutritional value of hybrid rice grains but also the texture and taste are expected to improve. Accordingly, we are currently focusing our efforts to further increase the cell content in rice grains. In particular, since fat cells are more sensitive than muscle cells, developing edible coatings optimized for the adhesion and proliferation of fat cells is one of our recent projects,” Park states.

With a promise of high nutritional value and low costs, the future certainly seems bright for hybrid rice. “This hybrid rice has the potential to evolve into a self-producing food kit,” Park hypothesizes. “If a self-production system for hybrid rice is secured, it can be widely applied to space food, combat ration, and hunger relief food.”

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