Battle of the burgers: stem cell or soy?

I have been following Dr Mark Post since I started my MA in Fashion & the Environment at London College of Fashion. I researched for a paper on using green science to alleviate some of the issues caused by the fashion industry, and was researching the concept of using stell cells to grow materials.

I am glad to see that this experiment had come to fruition, and hope that I also get the opportunity of working with scientists to make developments in the fashion industry.

by Charlotte Morgan  |  07 August 2013  |  




The world’s first lab-grown burger was fried this week, marking the beginnings of a revolution in how our ‘meat’ may one day be made. But is there any need for stem cells when we can create virtually the same taste with soy?

Battle of the burgers: stem cell or soy?

Stem cells and saffron

markDr Mark Post (pictured here) and his team at Maastricht University began their burger project several years ago, when they extracted stem cells from a biopsy of two cows. These ‘hoops’ of protein were grown into 20,000 muscle fibres, each one suspended in its own culture well, and after a few weeks of growth the hoops were cut open by hand, straightened out, pressed together, coloured with beetroot, and mixed with a little saffron and breadcrumbs.

The resulting patty was 100% beef (genetically speaking), and cost a staggering £215,000 to make – good thing Google co-founder Sergey Brin was footing the bill. Brin was apparently motivated to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons. “When you see how these cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with,” he told The Guardian.

The answer to all our problems?

burgerThe hope is that Dr Post’s method of growing protein could one day eliminate the need to slaughter cattle, and be a means to produce food more efficiently (cows require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of animal protein). It could also solve concerns over the amount of gas produced by livestock – which currently accounts for 40% of methane emissions – and would help satiate the meat demands of an ever-expanding population. If we have to rely solely on farming to feed a potential 9.5 billion human population by 2060, then the resulting numbers of livestock could alone be responsible for half as much climate impact as all the world’s cars, lorries and aircraft.

At the launch of the burger in London on Monday, Dr Post said that his lab meat could reduce the need for land and water by 90% and cut overall energy waste by 70%. Of course, if the world learnt to eat less meat on its own, we wouldn’t need science to save the day. But despite illustrious campaigns such as Sir Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Mondays, humanity shows no sign of curbing its appetite for flesh, and even in the UK, where it’s easy to eat a varied meat-free diet, the number of vegetarians still dips below the 5% mark.

What it tastes like

So how was the burger received? Only a chef, a food writer and a nutritionist were invited to taste the specimen, which chef Richard McGeown tentatively fried in a pan with butter and sunflower oil. McGeown deemed it a little bit paler than usual, but nevertheless aromatic and easy to cook. Hanni Rützler of the Future Food Studio was the first to taste it, declaring that it wasn’t as soft as she imagined, and critiquing the apparent lack of fat and seasoning in it. Had she closed her eyes though, she said, she would never have expected the burger to be anything but beef.

Opinions of Dr Post’s methods vary widely, and it has been criticised as aquick way out of tackling more deep-rooted farming problems. Even some vegetarians aren’t happy – my mum for example, a vegetarian of 30 years, said that though she thought it a perfectly excellent alternative for carnivores, as a vegetarian she would “never, ever wish to eat anything which looked, tasted or felt remotely flesh-like – the very idea turns my stomach.”

The Vegetarian Butcher

veggieThen there’s The Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch company which creates perhaps the most uncanny meat alternatives within the vegetarian industry. It’s the brainchild of Jaap Korteweg, an eighth-generation farmer who, fed up with feeling guilty whenever he ate meat, set out to create the most convincing meat-free substitute possible, launching The Vegetarian Butcher in October 2010 (they’re yet to sell in the UK).

Mr Korteweg claims that his plant-based hamburger is “indistinguishable from a regular beef burger”, and that the ‘chicken’ he makes (which retails at about three euros per 160g) “tastes exactly how real chicken should taste”. The stem cell burger was “an interesting idea,” he said, “but it’s still powered by ‘fuels’ from living animals. Only when it’s possible to grow stem cells on plant based materials (like meat does) would it be worthwhile to invest time and money in this development. Now, it’s still a detour.”

burgerIn a deliberate attempt to challenge the stem cell burger, Mr Korteweg introduced some of his soy-based products to a group of journalists, including myself, at an event in London on the very same day that Dr Post was showing off his burger. The pan-fried chicken made from soy concentrate, water, sunflower oil, spices, flavourings and salt was scarily indistinguishable from the real deal (even Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame has previously declared himself convinced), especially in the way the ‘skin’ crisped up and turned golden; the tuna was distinctly fishy, overpoweringly so in fact; and the mc2burger (pictured here), which interestingly included burnt sugar in its ingredients list, was juicy, flavoursome, and definitely ‘meaty’ in taste. The majority of the room could not tell the difference between the mc2burger and a regular beef burger, but, being a long-time ‘flexitarian’ who’s tried every meat substitute on the market, I could just about detect the smack of soy in it. 

Stem cell or soy?

The Vegetarian Butcher and the Dr Post team make very similar claims: to breed animals for slaughter is essentially inhumane; meat-free meat is far more productive and less damaging to the environment (you’d have to keep enough chickens to fill an entire football pitch to get the same amount of food from one turn of Mr Korteweg’s machine); and even the most hardcore carnivore won’t be able to tell the difference between their product and meat. “Really the only difference between us,” said Armanda Govers, marketing manager for The Vegetarian Butcher, “is that we use soy where they use stem cells – the other ingredients are pretty much the same!”


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