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Scientists Create 'Meaty Rice' for Lab-Grown Protein Boost

Scientists in South Korea have created cultured beef rice, or a "meaty rice," by growing animal muscle and fat cells inside rice grains.

Hybrid rice that is packed with protein and fat from lab-grown meat cells may one day be a more sustainable, nutritious, and affordable food source for people around the world, according to researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea.

The scientists published a study in the journal Matter this week outlining their successful attempt at creating cultured beef rice — with their final product containing 8% more protein and 7% more fat than regular rice.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” said lead author Sohyeon Park in a news release. “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

Rice grains are an ideal platform to cultivate cell-cultured meat because they are porous and have organized structures, according to the study. The researchers were able to mimic the cellular environment found in animals in the rice, which supports the growth of tissue and organs.

The first step to the "meaty rice" was to coat the rice in fish gelatin, which is a safe and edible ingredient that helps cells latch onto the rice. The researchers then seeded cow muscle and fat stem cells into the rice and left it in a petri dish to culture for nine to 11 days. In the end, they were left with cell-cultured beef rice that meets food safety requirements and has a low risk of triggering food allergies.

Scientists steamed the rice and analyzed its nutritional value, odor, and texture, finding that it was slightly firmer and brittler than regular rice and that its odor and flavor varied depending on the muscle and fat content.

The hybrid rice with higher muscle content had beef and almond-related odor compounds, while the rice with higher fat content had compounds corresponding to cream, butter, and coconut oil.

The final product also has a much smaller carbon footprint when compared with livestock and a much more affordable price tag. The hybrid rice is estimated to release less than 6.27 kg of CO2 for every 100 g of protein produced, while beef releases 49.89 kg. And while beef costs about $14.88 per kg, the hybrid rice could cost just $2.23 per kilogram if commercialized.

These results are particularly significant considering the growing climate crisis and the exorbitant greenhouse gas emissions that come from livestock — where the majority of people still get their protein. Not to mention the rising costs of food, making it increasingly challenging for individuals to eat balanced, nutritious diets.

The researchers plan to improve the conditions in the "meaty rice" for both muscle and fat cells to thrive in order to further boost the nutritional value before working to make it available to consumers, but they are optimistic about eventually commercializing the hybrid rice and potentially solving a number of food-related problems in the process.

“I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice,” Park said. “Now I see a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food. It could one day serve as food relief for famine, military ration, or even space food.”

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