Cultured meats – talking alt protein and the new way to catch fish, with Dr Georgina Dowd

by | May 19, 2022 | Opinion

Alt-protein is such an amorphous category of technology and food, we haven’t really fully unpacked it. Vincent Heering was joined on Feed Weekly podcast by Dr Georgina Dowd, of Plant & Food Research, to talk all things cultured meat and about her work exploring ways to grow fish protein. 

You already know about plant protein as a meat alternative — peas, soy, beans and so on. And you’ve probably have already tasted an Impossible Burger, which is largely plant-based but uses fermentation to produce the blood-like heme flavour. But a third category of alt-protein is so new that no one yet has commercialised it. Lab-based or cultured meat, is animal protein grown in a lab on a substrate using original animal cells. It’s quite the schizz in tech circles and New Zealand is in the race too. Of all three, it’s the most exciting and elusive alternative to agriculture. 

To talk all things cultured meat, Vincent was joined by Dr Georgina Dowd, of Plant & Food Research who is exploring ways to grow fish protein.

Vincent: Alt-protein is such an amorphous category of technology and food. We haven’t really fully unpacked it, but we are talking today about cultured protein, sometimes called lab-based protein. Can you describe this? There are three categories of alt proteins that are emerging, right?

Georgina: It’s easiest to start with one that people are probably most comfortable and most familiar with and that’s your plant based protein. That’s exactly as it sounds, its protein derived from plants. A lot of people think of the Impossible Burger as being something a little bit more fancy than it is. It’s actually just a plant-based burger. So it’s derived from soy and potato protein. 

In New Zealand, we’ve got a company called SunFed foods and they produce chicken and meat from pulses — peas and beans and that kind of thing. So that’s your plant based. I think its pretty easy to grasp where they’re coming from. 

Next you’ve got your fermentation foods, which are foods or beverages that are produced through really tightly controlled microbial growth. And again, it sounds maybe a little bit intimidating, but fermented foods are ones that we’re all really familiar with. And probably some of our favourite foods are fermented foods. Like cheese and wine made from lactic acid bacteria. Bread and beer, ah yeast —Saccharomyces cerevisiae are usually used for that. And getting more into those meat  alternatives, things like Quorn, which are made from the Mycelium of fungi. So that’s, fermentation. 

Taking it a little bit further, you get into precision fermentation and that’s where we use microbes. I guess the easiest way to explain it is that we use them as little factories to produce something that we want — some specific ingredient. And I already mentioned the impossible burger, which is plant-based, but what makes the impossible burger so special is it almost looks like it’s bleeding. How that that is actually made is using heme, and that heme is made through precision fermentation. Um, so that protein is actually made by microbes and then they add it to the plant-based materials to get you that nice, real burger looking texture and colour.

Heme is a molecule related to haemoglobin, which is the oxygen carrying molecule in blood. Right?

GD: That’s right – exactly! Yeah. So that’s why it looks like it’s bleeding — The impossible burger, and that was the big challenge that, um, that company gave themselves when they said they wanted to make a plant-based burger that bled. That was the molecule the, the convent that they chose.  

In Australia, there’s a company called Nourish Foods and they’re using precision fermentation to make tailored fats. Um, so there’s a lot of interest in fermented foods and precision fermentation happening at the minute, I would say. 

VH: So that’s fermentation, and as you say, we’re familiar with beer, cheeses and yogurts and so on which are all kind of related to fermented food. We’ve been doing it for centuries, if not millennium. 

The third category is what you are interested in, which is what is we more typically call cultured protein or lab based? Can you explain what that is?

GD:  Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the hill that head there, there are a lot of different names used to describe cultured meat, clean meat, in-vitro meat. The technology I guess, is called cellular agriculture and in terms of meat, that’s essentially where we take cells from an organism, whether that be a cow or a pig. In my case, I’m really interested in fin fish. We take a cell from those and we give that cell all the nutritional and environmental conditions it needs to self-renew and replicate outside of the host. And then, using those cells and other building blocks, we can actually restructure and put those building blocks together to make a piece of meat. That’s the bare bones of what cellular agriculture is. 

VH: The change, I suppose, is that we’re not emulating other protein, we’re taking real protein and amplifying it, or accelerating it on some sort of structure, right? A culture. So does that make it, from a nutritional point of view and from a diet point of view, a more compelling product?

GD: That’s a really good question. So from, I guess, a compositional point of view in terms of your macro and micronutrients, you could have a plant based or fermentation product that can mimic exactly the nutritional composition of a piece of meat. You could have the same carbohydrate, protein, fat content. But I guess the, the difference with cellular agriculture products is that they’re not a substitute, they’re actually meat. They’re essentially the exact same as what you find in a burger or a piece of steak or a fish fillet that you will buy in the supermarket. It’s the exact same building blocks that we’re using. So that’s how I like to think about it. It’s not a substitute, it’s the same thing essentially just made in a slightly different way.

VH: Without all the environmental consequences of land, use, water use emissions and so on. So that sounds wonderful at one level. To what extent does do those environmental factors affect the quality and the experience of the meat? You know, to what extent it’s a living, breathing organism that’s exposed to air and soil — is that going to affect the quality and the experience of the product?

GD: Hmm. That’s a good question. And it’s kind of challenging me to think about it in a very different way than I normally would! So thank you for that. Um, yeah, I mean, when we think about the way meat is made, and I’m thinking specifically of that really intensive farming, there’s a lot of, you know, use of hormones, squashing these animals in, and getting as much out of the animals as we can. So possibly culturing our meat in the conventional sense, we’re not actually getting the best out of our meat doing it that way anyway. And you can see that like, even in the seafood space, there’s a definite point of difference when you are selling wild salmon. You know, back in Europe, that was a big thing growing up, this the idea of this wild salmon having this superior composition.

So it’s a good question around, uh, whether these, these cell based products will actually be better or worse. And I think the answer is, the joy of these products is eventually when we have all the tech developed is we will be able to tailor them whatever way you want. If you wanted something that was really high in omega three for example, we can tailor these products to do that. Um, and I think that’s gonna be something very exciting that comes out of this field is this whole idea of tailored nutrition.

VH: I think you better explain to us how it actually works. So could you describe to us for us lay people cause we’re not biochemists and, or cell biologists. Can you describe how you might extract, uh, a cell from a living being and sure. And grow it into an actual muscle or a piece of flesh? …

Go here to listen to the full podcast interview. 

Plant and Food Research 

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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