Overcoming the ick factor of lab-grown meat
Cultured meat promises to be better for animals, public health and the planet. Will we eat it?
Allison Parshall • June 17, 2022
Last month I made carnitas for the first time and spent an eternity cutting up a four-pound piece of pork shoulder. I tried not to think much about how it used to be alive — a skill I’ve perfected as a conflicted meat eater.
But as I was moving the cut around, trying to get all the meat, I felt a bone rotate smoothly in its socket — and was instantly struck by a wave of horrifying revulsion. It was an unwelcome, glaring reminder that I was dismembering a recently living animal. Probably a cute one, too.
For ambivalent omnivores like me, there may soon be a guilt-free way to eat real meat. Cultured meat, or cultivated meat, can be grown from stem cells extracted from a living animal, like a cow, chicken or fish. Those cells are then placed in closed vessels containing all the nutrients and building blocks of life they need to develop into edible meat. This technology was used to create the first cultivated hamburger in 2013. While cultured meat products are currently only available to consumers in Singapore, they may soon be in your local grocery store.
Beyond improving the lives of animals, cultured meat could also benefit the health of humans and of our planet. Agriculture accounts for 11% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, of which 57% comes from the production of animal-based food. Cultured meat promises to be more sustainable by replacing demand for traditional meat, though it is still unclear how much energy the production process will consume. Cultured meat could also quell overuse of antibiotics in the agricultural industry and reduce opportunities for dangerous diseases to jump from livestock into humans. No wonder funding for these companies skyrocketed from $410 million in 2020 to $1.36 billion in 2021 – even though the timeline for cultured meat’s approval by the U.S. government is still unclear.
Beyond the regulatory challenges, cultured meat will also have to overcome an equally important but more enigmatic force: consumer attitudes. Estimates vary widely depending on the survey, but a recent study in the U.S. and U.K. found that 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians reported being too disgusted by the idea of cultured meat to even try it.
Begrudgingly, I’ll admit that I’m among them. Cultured meat should be a guilt-free way to “have your steak and eat it, too,” as Chris Bryant, who studies the psychology surrounding alternative proteins as the director of Bryant Research, jokingly put it. But despite knowing the likely benefits, I feel disgusted by the idea of cultured meat. So why do some of us feel this way? It’s a slippery question to answer, but that hasn’t stopped psychologists, biologists and philosophers from trying to figure out where these attitudes come from, and how we can overcome this relatively common aversion.
It’s not a coincidence that the word disgust often gets applied to food — the word originally means something like bad taste, explains Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies food and disgust. Of all types of food, meat seems to inspire a disproportionate amount of disgust, Rozin says. “It’s a very ambivalent substance. A lot of positives and a lot of negatives,” he says.
This disgust could have an evolutionary origin since it seems to discourage us from eating things that could lead to infection. Meat is a prime example since it can carry bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. This theory makes intuitive sense and is pretty widely accepted, especially since we don’t have a strong alternative argument for where this visceral emotion comes from, says Daniel Rosenfeld, a social psychologist at UCLA and a co-author of the recent survey study on disgust toward cultured meat. But this theory also can’t be proven, Rozin says, and it doesn’t tell the whole story, because cultural norms have massive influence on, say, if you’d eat a deep-fried grasshopper, a delicacy in Oaxaca, or a deep-fried pickle, beloved in Arkansas.
Willingness to try cultured meat does seem to vary depending on where in the world you’re asking. A 2020 study of ten countries asked participants to rate their disgust with cultured meat, how unnatural they perceived it to be, and whether they would be willing to eat it, as well as questions about the participant’s general sensitivity to food disgust, willingness to try new foods, and trust in the food industry. Unsurprisingly, results varied widely from country to country, with the highest acceptance in Mexico and the lowest in France.
The cultured meat industry, as you might expect, is thinking about this problem as well, with non-profits like the Good Food Institute and New Harvest involved in research on consumer attitudes. Mosa Meat, a cultivated meat company led by Dr. Mark Post, the creator of the first cultivated burger, said via email that the company is encouraged by studies such as this one showing favorable attitudes across all age groups.
But what we can glean from these survey studies is limited. Since very few people are familiar with cultured meat, small changes in how the researchers frame the concept and their questions can sway people’s intuitive responses. Rosenfeld’s recent findings are a good example of how much phrasing matters. In one experiment, participants received surveys with different explanations of cultured meat. Some contained more reminders than others that these cells came from animals. The more animal reminders in the explanation, the less that meat-eating respondents reported feeling disgusted. But for vegetarian respondents, more animal reminders translated to more disgust.
Right now, these survey results are like “a blank slate,” says Rosenfeld, giving us a vague sense of public attitudes toward cultured meat before our friends and family try it, or trendy-looking ads for guilt-free chicken nuggets show up in our news feeds. Cor van der Weele, a philosopher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, calls these studies “aesthetic measurements of a moment.” She’s seen firsthand through focus groups how attitudes toward cultured meat can shift as people mull it over in their heads and with others. “People’s first response is not their last response,” she says. “It says something about that moment, but not about what will happen next.”
If cultured meat products can one day achieve a price, taste and mouthfeel comparable to the real deal, what happens next may be all in the presentation. “I think it starts with the label you are using,” says Michael Siegrist, a psychologist studying consumer behavior at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who conducted the 2020 cross-cultural survey. The more technical the name, like “lab-grown” or “cell-based”, the less natural consumers will perceive the product to be, he says. And perceptions of naturalness are important, as other studies have pointed to perceived unnaturalness as an important factor that feeds into disgust.
But what we consider unnatural goes beyond just labeling. There are plenty of unnatural things in our lives that we would never think to call unnatural, like the internet or a desk, explains Matti Wilks, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh who studies perceptions of cultured meat. When it comes to food, we don’t call yogurt, cheese or wine unnatural, even though they are all human-invented products that harness living organisms to transform our food, says Rozin. But those products have been around for millennia. Perhaps it’s new things that set off our ingrained unnaturalness alarms — and genetically modified foods are a good example of this. A 2020 study by Rozin and his colleagues found that consumers had more negative feelings about more recently modified crops, what they called “recency negativity.” This may apply to cultured meat too, says Wilks. “We like things that have been around for a long time. And I think it’s probably a subtle indicator to safety or familiarity,” says Wilks.
If we see new, unfamiliar foods as less natural, then perhaps there’s reason for optimism, says Bryant. People who are more familiar with cultured meat do tend to be more accepting of it, he explains, and our familiarity can only increase from here.
We’re already becoming accustomed to alternatives to traditionally farmed meat, like Impossible Burger and Beyond Beef, two plant-based alternatives that have achieved relatively mainstream success in recent years. This success may be “opening people’s minds to thinking of meat as something that is more flexibly defined,” says Rosenfeld, which could minimize the size of the psychological leap between conventional meat and cultured meat.
Still, he adds, plant-based alternatives aren’t as radical as cultivated meats, because they are still made from plants instead of real animal cells. While the success of Impossible and Beyond makes it clear there’s an appetite for meat alternatives, the concerns of consumers may differ widely between the two types of products. This limits the lessons we can draw from their rollout, says Edinburgh’s Wilks. Those who don’t like plant-based meat alternatives have more practical concerns, like how healthy they are and how good they taste compared to traditional meat, she explains. But the pushback against cultured meat is more about abstract feelings and ethical questions — “It’s things like, ‘It’s unnatural. It’s messing with God,’” she explains.
This pushback could also boil down to our unfamiliarity with cultured meat, which might be throwing off our risk calculations. In a 2017 study, Zurich’s Siegrist and a colleague found that consumers were less willing to accept the exact same health risks from cultured meat than from traditional meat. There are many risks we take today, such as driving cars and drinking alcohol, that we might not accept if they were suddenly introduced as a new technology, Siegrist explains. Overcoming this bias toward the status quo can be a massive challenge, he says.
In general, pushing back with logic against our knee-jerk reactions might be a doomed effort. “This doesn’t all respond to logic,” Rozin told me when I expressed my frustration at not being able to think myself out of my unreasonable disgust.
Wilks agrees, because her research suggests that most people arrive at this disgust through emotion and intuition, not logical analysis. “If we really want to change people’s minds, we need to get them to feel better about cultured meat, rather than to think more positively about it,” she says. This shift could come naturally with time, familiarity, transparency and shifting social norms when, or if, cultured meat becomes more widely available and affordable.
These researchers have all spent much more time thinking about cultured meat than I have, so I asked some of them how they feel about one day getting to sample it. UCLA’s Rosenfeld shares some of my disgust, but he’s a vegetarian, so he has a better excuse. On the other hand, Matti Wilks, a vegetarian, and Chris Bryant, a vegan, are both very excited to try it. And Michael Siegrist, not a vegetarian, says he would be willing to try it, though he’s not yet convinced that it will ever taste and feel like the real thing.
As for me: I may still be disgusted, but now I’m incredibly curious. I suppose I’ll try anything once.
This post has been updated to include an additional photo and caption in the body of the article.
Great article. Food carries an immense amount of cultural and psychosocial baggage, and getting past this kind of deep-seated disgust is going to be hard. Besides people’s inherent biases, pop culture representations of “food improved by science” have tended mostly negative. Soylent Green is a classic example. More recent dystopian fiction has continued that trend; see, for example, all of the foods in the hit 2019 indie game “The Outer Worlds.” The whole set of lore and side stories related to cystypigs hits especially close to lab-grown meat.
As a longtime vegetarian, I am particularly excited for lab-grown meat to hit the market. It feels like a long time coming!