A Taste of Life Beyond the Lab

Doctoral candidates at Tufts’ Center for Cellular Agriculture tour Bay Area companies that create lab-grown meat products

James Dolgin embraces vegetarianism these days, but, as a former consumer of meat, he still appreciates the taste of some decent smoked chicken.

That’s why, on a recent trip to California’s Bay Area to visit several companies with a focus on producing cultivated meat—that is, meat grown in a lab with animal cells—Dolgin, E27, was pleased to try some cultivated smoked chicken made by the firm GOOD Meat.

“The sample gave me a sense of the texture side of things,” said Dolgin, whose research focuses on finding new ingredients to use in the process of cultivating meat. “Chicken is difficult to replicate because it has a fibrous nature. Seeing how a company was able to recreate that texture and striation was interesting. And it tasted good!”

The trip in which Dolgin participated was organized by the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) and led by David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Meera Zassenhaus, head of communications at TUCCA.

Dolgin and five fellow Ph.D. students spent a week with Kaplan and Zassenhaus visiting Bay Area companies that are bringing cultivated meat and other animal products grown via microbial hosts like fungi, yeast, and bacteria, to market. In addition to GOOD Meat, they visited UPSIDE Foods, Wildtype, Mission Barns, SCiFi Foods and six other companies, trying most available types of cultivated meat, including chicken, salmon, pork, and beef.

While tasting products, the group spoke at length with company scientists and got a significant look into the industry side of cellular agriculture. Such behind-the-curtains experiences are normally reserved for investors and journalists, Kaplan explained.

“The trip was a rare opportunity for these students,” said Kaplan. “The aim was to expose them to what is happening with cultivated meat in the real world, and our hope was that they’d come back with fresh ideas and perspectives that they can apply to their own research.”

That hope was fulfilled, according to Emily Lew, E27. Lew’s research focuses on the ways in which cultivated fat is used to create aroma and flavor in lab-grown meat. “The trip showed me just how important it is to be looking at sensory qualities,” Lew said. “It gave me a lot of new ideas about how we can tackle replicating sensory aspects, whether it be during a product’s post-processing phase or as early in the process as when we’re feeding cells that are being cultivated.”

For Dolgin’s part, observing the industry’s inner workings did give him access to that fresh perspective for which Kaplan was hoping.

“I was surprised to see how willing the companies are to play around with things like genetic engineering to optimize their processes," said Dolgin. "Their openness to trying new approaches could, in turn, open up new arenas for academia to explore—for example, to see what kinds of genes we might want to add or delete to create better meat-producing cells.”

The trip also highlighted for him the difference between academic aims and industry goals regarding cultivated meat—and the value both parties bring to the table.

“In the lab, we have the luxury of being able to take a step back and ask why cells have particular properties on a genetic level, or why certain things taste the way they do,” Dolgin noted. “Once taste and texture are taken care of, the companies we visited primarily are aiming to create large amounts of biomass as efficiently as possible.” While the companies work on bringing affordable products to market, he said, researchers can continue exploring crucial questions about materials, processes, and the future of cultivated meat—not to mention refining aspects of taste and other sensory qualities.

And when it comes to taste and other sensorial qualities, what did the students really think?

First, it’s worth noting that most of the students had never eaten lab-grown meats before. As Dolgin put it, “For most of us, it was our first time ever trying the thing that a lot of us have been working on for our whole Ph.D. careers,” making the experience worthwhile regardless of whether they liked what they were eating or not.

“Most of the products tasted like what they were meant to taste like,” Lew said. “The chicken tasted like chicken, the salmon, like salmon. However, every company had things they could work on sensorially, whether it was smell, flavor, tenderness, or juiciness.”

Beyond the products, Dolgin and Lew were inspired by the people they met. Dolgin observed that, while he and his cohort are the first generation of academics trained specifically in the field of cultured meat, the scientists working in the companies they toured have backgrounds in other fields, such as pharmaceutics, cell biology, microbiology, or chemical engineering.

That diversity of backgrounds among the people with whom their group met led Dolgin to consider the contributions he and his fellow students in the Kaplan Lab will make when they are in the workforce. 

”With their previous experience, the scientists at these companies filled in gaps in our knowledge," Dolgin said. "And as people who have thought about these specific issues related to cultivated meat throughout our doctoral training, I can imagine how one day we might help fill gaps in theirs.”

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