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Beef rice: a new hybrid food for a more sustainable future?

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Beef rice: a new hybrid food for a more sustainable future?

The new invention has a footprint almost eight times lower than an equivalent amount of field-reared beef.
March 15, 2024

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A team of researchers has developed the world’s first hybrid meat-rice, rich in fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

This creation, the researchers say, could be a significant step towards solving the twin challenges of food sustainability and food security. Not only is the rice many times cheaper than a dish of beef and rice, it also has a footprint that’s many times smaller than conventionally-farmed beef. And by rolling the two ingredients into one, the researchers believe they’ve found a convenient way to deliver key nutrients at a much lower cost to the environment. 

The work stems from efforts to artificially culture meat cells and make lab-grown burgers, steaks and other meat mimics — the goal being to decouple meat from livestock farming and land-use. But so far, many of these projects have struggled to provide a suitable growth medium for the proliferating meat cells, and one that’s also food safe for when it’s consumed down the line.

That’s where rice comes in. Not only is the grain already a widely-consumed food, but as the researchers show in their new Cell Matter study, the structure of a rice grain creates an ideal scaffold for growing meat cells. Its makeup is both porous and crystalline, which creates space for proliferating meat cells and lends them a structure as they grow. What’s more, rice is an abundant source of selenium, a chemical element that’s crucial for processes involved in the growth of developing cells. “From the perspective of hybrid food, these nutritional and structural characteristics of rice grains indicate their great potential as 3D cell scaffolds,” the researchers say.

With these traits in mind, they set about testing how well rice would actually do at growing meat cells. First, they coated their grains in fish gelatin, which helps cells adhere to the grain’s surface. Then they seeded the grains with bovine stem cells that are the precursors for muscle tissue and fat cells, and left them to culture for around 11 days.

 

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After this incubation stage they returned to find a hybrid rice in the lab: the grains had been colonized by bovine cells to create a true fusion food. It wasn’t enough that the experiment had worked though; the researchers also wanted to understand how this food compared to the nutritional and environmental profile of regular rice, and a conventional rice and beef dish. 

Per 100 grams of rice, they found that the hybrid food contained 310 mg more protein and 10 mg more fat than regular ‘bare’ rice that lacked the meaty cells. The researchers also believe that the structure of the rice grain could be manipulated to tune the amount of protein and fat per serving of hybrid rice. An industry-standard test of the flavor profiles in the hybrid rice detected buttery, nutty, creamy, and—unsurprisingly—beefy notes that together could combine to produce a rich aroma and taste. 

Even more appetizingly, the rice had a much lower emissions footprint, when compared to a dish of conventional beef. When the researchers compared the footprint of 100g of protein from the hybrid rice with 100g of protein from conventional beef, they calculated that the hybrid rice would generate about 6.27 kilograms of CO2. While that’s still high, it doesn’t come close to the almost 50 kilos of CO2 generated for every 100g of regular beef. 

The more progressive footprint is thanks to its lab-cultured origins, which cut out the environmental and climate costs of land disturbance, feed production, and methane that accompanies a cattle farm. That helps lower the price point too: the estimated market price of the beefy rice could be as low as $2.23 per kilogram, compared to more than $15 per kilogram for the traditional version of this dish. 

These are still early days for the invention, and there are many hurdles to jump—not least of which is the consumer acceptability of this unusual fusion food. That said, there is the possibility that meat enrobed in rice might in fact be more palatable to the average person than a raw chunk of lab-grown beef, and in the long run that may help to normalize cultured alternatives to farmed beef. 

Either way, the researchers hope that with some fine-tuning, their invention will catch on as a beef alternative, and also as an easy way to deliver key nutrients—such as under conditions of famine or war—without costing the earth. “This technology is expected to develop into a system capable of self-producing food in the future and achieve a sustainable food system for the food crisis,” the say.


Park et. al. “Rice grains integrated with animal cells: A shortcut to a sustainable food system.” Matter, 2024.

Note: The top image is a hypothetical mockup, not a real rice package. In fact, the actual beef rice developed by researchers is pink—perhaps not the most appetizing look. ©Anthropocene Magazine.

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