So where's the beef? Food of the future makes it hard to tell


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When we read last week about a 5-ounce hamburger that cost more than $330,000, our first concern was we wouldn't have enough cash on hand the next time when ordering at the drive-thru.

Then we actually learned the details, which we're typically loath to do, as it always takes sooo much of our precious time. It turns out this burger was unusually expensive because it was totally artificial -- grown in a lab instead of collected from an animal carcass. So even if you got it at the value meal price with fries and soda, it would require many more bills and coins than most of us store in the car console.

The lab-made food resulted from a five-year research project at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, in which the burger was grown using stem cells harvested from a cow's shoulder.

The idea is that stem cell-generated food would be a more environmentally sound way of feeding everyone, with less drain on the world's resources. Additionally, it would quiet the animal-lovers who say we shouldn't kill cows, pigs, chickens and oh-so-many-other delicious animals (ummmm, squid) to feed ourselves.

It never really occurred to us before that someday we might be ordering from the stem cell menu at our local restaurant, as it doesn't sound very appetizing. The Washington Post's story about the lab-made burger, however, made it sound, well, at least not bad.

"It's close to meat, but it's not as juicy," pronounced a nutritional scientist who was not involved in the burger's creation. If it had been as unappealing as some of us might assume a stem cell burger to be, "I would have said if it was disgusting," she added.

One of the other tasters said it was like "an animal protein cake."

We've never had animal protein cake, though we're hoping someone provides one for the next office birthday party since we're tired of all those creamy, rich, fattening, delightful sheet cakes.

It would be fun to see how an animal protein cake with candles and fancy writing on it would repulse the traditionalists who can't stand even a carrot cake being used as a special occasion substitute.

Coincidentally or not over the weekend, we wandered by accident into a food co-op, taking a shopping cart amid the slender people with tattoos and body piercings whose cars wear all sorts of leftist-inclined bumper stickers.

The food choices looked so different from our usual Giant Eagle that if you'd told us half of the products came from stem cells, we would have believed it.

It reminds us that we've previously eaten meals with tofu substituting for meat (tried to forget them, but can't), and we can't imagine stem cells being any worse. (We also think "Soylent Green" probably tastes better than tofu, despite Charlton Heston's revelation in the movie that soylent green is derived from people's corpses -- just as good an idea as stem cells to extend the world's resources, it seems to us.)

We've wondered what food of the future would be like ever since the first time we ate Dippin' Dots (The Ice Cream of the Future ... and always will be) at an amusement park. This liquid nitrogen-enhanced dessert struck our taste buds a little oddly. It seemed better for astronauts than real people. We're guessing stem cell food will be the same, although if the twin son and daughter in our household are any indication, smothering it beneath Frank's Red Hot sauce will automatically address any defects.

Despite all this food talk, The Morning File has always belonged to the tribe that eats to live, rather than the other way around. We know plenty of people who subscribe to the opposite -- the gourmands and foodies who increasingly populate Pittsburgh, and presumably everywhere else in the world except for perhaps those places in Africa and Asia where people are grateful for a few calories of anything a day to survive.

Probably the best meals we ever had -- due to the fun company -- were the ones where we put SpaghettiO's, carrot slices and applesauce on the trays in kids' high chairs and then stepped back to see what they'd do with it, while eating whatever scraps they left behind so as to, yes, preserve the world's diminishing resources. We ate everything except the food that ended up on the floor, on chins or in hair.

Will we be serving stem cell baby food to the grandkids someday, helping the planet as a result, with the little ones not knowing any better that their food is supposed to be "juicy" or better-tasting? Or will we keep doing things the same old way?

Either way, it's got to be better than soylent green -- or at the very least tofu.

intelligencer

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255. First Published August 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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