Inside the Tasty Mission to Get You to Eat Lab Grown Meat

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

In June, two companies that create cultivated meat—or meat made by taking a sample of cells from a live animal and replicating them in a facility—became the first of their kind to receive the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s approval to sell their products in the U.S. And, thanks to partnerships, the brands (Upside Foods and Good Meat) have cooked up with world-class chefs, diners at restaurants stateside can now sink their teeth into the futuristic protein source.

But before cultivated meat—also known as lab-grown meat, clean meat, or cultured meat—can find a regular home on Americans’ plates, producers will need to answer one pretty basic question: How can they get consumers to bite?

Market research shows that there’s a way to go before many people salivate at the thought of a lab-made chicken tender. In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, authors and behavioral scientists at UCLA Daniel L. Rosenfeld and A. Janet Tomiyama revealed that “an estimated 35 percent of meat-eaters and 55 percent of vegetarians felt too disgusted by cultured meat to try eating it.”

This feeling of disgust is an emotional response tied to people’s perceptions of cultivated meat as being an “unnatural” product,” Rosenfeld told The Daily Beast. “Which makes sense, because cultured meat is inherently a creation that humans are making,” he said. “And, intuitively, thinking cultured meat is unnatural leads to a reaction [wherein] people [feel] that cultured meat might not be safe to eat.”

A picture of a faux chicken sandwich

A priority for Upside Foods is figuring ways to make more people excited about cultivated meats—particularly the 89 percent of Americans who include animal meat in their diets.

Upside Foods

The first step to getting cultivated meat into the dinner rotation, therefore, is convincing people that it is safe—and doing that starts with the words used to describe these products. “You don't get a second chance to make a first impression,” Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World and CEO of alternative protein brand The Better Meat Co., told The Daily Beast. “And what this food is called, we know from extensive consumer polling, alters the number of people who are interested in eating it.”

The nomenclature of cultivated meat has evolved as the industry has gained momentum. Twenty years ago, “in vitro meat” and “lab-grown meat” were the monikers du jour. But these jargony and scientific terms didn’t exactly whet consumers’ appetite. (“‘In vitro meat,’ at best, made people think of in vitro fertilization,” said Shapiro.)

Next, cultivated meat companies began to call their products “clean meat.” It was a hit with consumers, who associated the term with progressive initiatives like clean energy, but not so much with conventional meat producers. “Clean meat,” they felt, implied that the alternative was dirty.

The preferred term today is “cultivated meat.” In October 2022, 36 stakeholders in the Asian Pacific Society for Cellular Agriculture (a mix of startups, government groups, and advocacy organizations that have an interest in cultivated meat) signed an agreement in which they standardized the use of “cultivated meat” to describe food products that are grown from animal cells.

Several preparations of salmon, served at a private tasting event

Several preparations of cultivated salmon, served at a private tasting event in February 2019, and sushi dishes demoed in September 2020.

The Good Food Institute

Emma Ignaszewski, associate director of industry intelligence and initiatives at The Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the use of alternative proteins (like cultivated and plant-based meat), told The Daily Beast that the term meets the three core criteria for naming an emerging product type: It differentiates between other alternative protein products (such as plant-based meat), it is accurate and descriptive, and it’s appealing to consumers.

“‘Lab-grown meat’ is inaccurate because, at scale, the production process occurs in a production facility that’s more like a brewery than a lab,” Ignaszewski said. “A term like ‘cell-based meat’ is accurate, but it’s not distinct because conventional meat is also composed of cells and plant-based meat is composed of cells.”

“Animal-free meat” is another term that gets a thumbs-up from many proponents of cultivated meat and also polls well with consumers. Whether it passes the test for accuracy, however, might be more of a philosophical question.

“What is an animal? Is it a cell or is it an organism?” said Rosenfeld. “If you view an animal as a living organism, then cultured meat is animal-free in that what you're eating is not really part of the body of an animal [that lived] out there in the world. But if you view an animal as something on the level of DNA and cells, then of course cultured meat is 100 percent animal tissue.”

A picture of a faux fried chicken with waffles.

Many professions in the alt protein industry believe that a failure to live up to consumer expectations for taste is a key reason why early excitement about plant-based burgers abated.

Upside Foods

The average American isn’t actively questioning when life begins each time they sit down to a meal. Rather, Rosenfeld said, the positive perception of “animal-free meat” illustrates how words have a subconscious impact—and how terms can gain traction by appealing to a person’s values.

Of course, language’s impact doesn’t stop with a product’s name. Producers of cultivated meat choose their words carefully when they use their websites, marketing materials, and PR opportunities to teach the public about how cultivated meat products are made and how home cooks can use them.

“The definition is the first opportunity to layer in appeal, to make people think about this as a product they’d want to try,” Ignaszewski said. “One of the most important parts of the definition of cultivated meat is that it can look and cook and taste the same as conventional meat—or in other words, that it’s essentially the same as the beef, pork, chicken, and fish that we eat today.”

According to Ignaszewski, when consumers are offered a description of cultivated meat that emphasizes that it looks, cooks, and tastes the same as conventional meat, the number of people who say they’d like to try it nearly doubles. With the product description, it’s then important for companies to give people enough context to satisfy the curiosity about cultivated meat that will naturally bubble up for them.

“One of the questions is, ‘How are the cells sourced?’ And so, [an appealing definition] informs people right away that the cells are sampled humanely from an animal,” said Ignaszewski.

As chief operating officer of Upside Foods, it’s part of Amy Chen’s job to figure out ways to make more people more excited about cultivated meat, particularly the 89 percent of Americans who include meat in their diets. A priority for her right now is showing meat-eaters that cultivated meat can easily take the center spot on their plates—be that at a summer cookout, a holiday dinner, or as part of their family’s favorite recipe.

“It’s the piece of the meal that everyone thinks about planning first and building around,” Chen told The Daily Beast. “Ultimately, our impact [as a company that makes cultivated meat] is dependent on us being able to meet consumers where they are in terms of their expectations—their needs—for meat.”

Many professionals in the alternative protein industry believe that a failure to live up to consumers’ expectations for taste is a key reason why early excitement about “bleeding” plant-based burgers and other products from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has abated. “[Taste] is the number-one reason why consumers who have tried [plant-based meat] once or twice didn’t continue buying it or come back to the category,” said Ignaszewski.

This fact is front-of-mind for people within the cultivated meat industry as they move from a pre-launch environment to a world where people can taste the foods for themselves, according to Ignaszewski.

Test Tube Turkey Is the Future Thanksgiving Centerpiece

“I think the next phase for a lot of consumers is, How do I start actually trying this?” said Chen. “I think folks have started wrapping their heads around what [cultivated meat] is, and now there are a lot of questions. What does it taste like? How would I actually cook it?”

Newness is exciting, but it can also be intimidating. According to Chen, it takes us time to feel comfortable with innovation—especially in the food space, where new product categories are rarely introduced. We may expect the phone in our pockets to get an upgrade every year, but the idea that “the food I’m eating today may actually change tomorrow” will take some getting used to, said Chen. “I think that’s a new muscle for us and one that [producers] are thinking through as we think about the broader rollout of [cultivated meat].”

Right now, Americans’ willingness to try cultivated meat is largely hypothetical—there are only two places in the country where it can be sampled (Bar Crenn in San Francisco and China Chilcano in Washington, DC). But with cultivated meat companies banking on consumer acceptance—nearly $3 billion has been poured into the industry since its inception, with just under a third of that investment coming in 2022—you can expect to hear more and more about the products and their purported benefits in the coming years.

The way folks in the industry see it, we stand to gain a lot by swapping traditional steaks for alternative protein, and they’re eager to educate consumers on the ways cultivated meat could be a boon for the health of the planet, animal life, and ourselves. “It's not just about that bite of chicken, it's about a choice for a better world,” said Chen. “And we want to invite people into that journey with us, which will take months and years and even decades to really reach its full potential.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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