I’m going to cut to the chase: I ate chicken grown in a giant metallic vat for lunch and I — a food writer and restaurant critic for the better part of a decade — am throwing my weight behind it.
The reason is simple. There are 7 billion people living on this planet and 23 billion chickens alive at any point in time to feed the entire of humanity. The ecological impact on the planet — from clearing forest land for farms to farming livestock feed — is staggering and there’s certainly no way we can continue living the way we do.
Thankfully the meat itself was actually pretty tasty, not entirely different from farmed chicken. It is, after all, meat grown from actual chicken cells and it does have some subtle differences. I’ll get to that later, because first, we need a primer on how cultured chicken ended up on my plate.
Back in December 2020, Singapore made waves for allowing the world’s first commercial sale for cultured meat. Apparently “cultured meat” is the preferred term over lab-grown, because the latter conjures mildly creepy images of people in white lab coats producing food, and which is also inaccurate. Meat “grown” from cells is cultured in food manufacturing facilities, in large steel tanks that resemble beer brewing vats.
The people behind this gastro-biological wizardry is Eat Just — a company headquartered in San Francisco and founded in 2011 which also produces plant-based eggs. Its aim is to whizz science and technology into the culinary industry to create food that’s healthier for you and better the planet. It might seem odd that it has made its way to Asia but a glance at its financial backers reveals Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing via Horizon Ventures as well as Singapore’s state fund Temasek Holdings. The company is said to be valued to the tune of US$1.3 billion.
All that has led the company to start a fledgling manufacturing process at Singapore Polytechnic where it’s able to produce the cultured chicken in tiny batches. Officially named GOOD Meat Cultured Chicken, what’s been approved thus far for commercial sale is a food product the company calls a chicken bite. Here, the meat has been breaded to look like a chicken nugget that measures no more than two inches wide.
So how does cultured chicken taste?
Like chicken. It is, after all, made from chicken cells and not a plant-based substitute like Heura. There is a subtle key difference though. Unlike regular farmed meat, the cultured chicken I ate had a uniform texture. Bite into it and you will meet no sinews, fatty juices (that makes eating nuggets so good) nor meaty fibres that characterise chicken breast. Instead, it sits like a clean block with the mouthfeel of a braised shiitake mushroom.
This technology is a remarkable breakthrough for both science and the future of food as the company has plans to introduce other meat proteins into its fold. While I’d happily continue eating cultured chicken and the like, it faces three setbacks.
First, is the taste of fat, or lack of it. Like Beyond meat and Impossible Foods, Eat Just hasn’t yet replicated this vital building block of what makes food taste good. Impossible, for instance, uses coconut oil to make up the fat component of its minced “meat” — that hardly tastes like actual beef fat. Yet as every chef would tell you, fat is flavour and what’s truly missing at lunch was the taste of juicy chicken fat.
Second, is the cost of it. We’re told that once Eat Just reaches commercial scalability, it would be priced similar to what premium chicken would cost at gourmet butchers. To truly reach mass appeal and hit its goals of reducing the environmental impact of eating meat, the cultured chicken has to be priced competitively to farmed chicken. If you were in a supermarket with a budget in mind and you had to pick between traditionally farmed livestock and cultured meat, which would you choose if farmed meat is much cheaper? That seems to be the conundrum for Impossible Foods — it’s now available at major supermarkets in Singapore and where I shop, it’s placed right next to minced meat. Unless I’m cooking for people on plant-based diets, guess which one I would pick?
Third, and the most important: wary diners. Assuming that the first two setbacks can be overcome given time, diners would need to be convinced that the meat is just as good as the ones that are traditionally farmed. There will also be people who might think meat grown in this manner has an “ick” factor — never mind that so much of what we consume — from cereals to canned food has been heavily processed.
To them I’d say that having sat through lunch where I ate these pieces of meat, these fears, while real and valid can be overcome.
There’s just no doubt that cultured meat and plant-based alternatives are the future. While each would have its appeal to a different set of diners, what’s certain is this: our planet can’t sustain the demand for animal proteins at this current pace for much longer. The way we eat has to change, and if that means I’ll have to eat chicken grown in giant metallic vats, then so be it.
It does, after all, still taste like chicken.
This article was first published on Lifestyle Asia Singapore