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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Frankenmeatophobia

by Jeff Wagg

August 10, 2013

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Over ten years ago, I wrote a short piece about the potential for meat grown in a laboratory. The process is straightforward: acquire muscle tissue from an animal and endlessly propagate it to produce meat, but without harming animals (at least after the initial culture.) In practice it's much more difficult, but you get the idea.

The benefit is that people can enjoy the nutrition of meat without needing to raise and slaughter animals. It should be a win-win situation. People who like meat can still enjoy their burgers, and people who are concerned for animal welfare can rest easy knowing that the burger is cruelty-free. PETA even sponsors a (perhaps dishonest*) contest offering $1,000,000 to the first person to produce "test tube" meat.

And yet despite these obvious benefits, the general response to this was horror and disgust. "Ew, that's sounds horrible. I'll just stick with my normal burgers, thank you."

Fast forward to the present, and lab grown meat, while not on our supermarket shelves, is a reality. Hamburgers grown from stem cells by Dutch researchers were recently taste-tested in London.

Testers generally liked the "frankenmeat," though it was describe as "dry" and not quite like fresh meat. This is likely due to the lack of lipids, connective tissue and myoglobin (looks like blood) normally found in hamburgers.

If you had a reaction of distaste to the terms "lipids, connective tissue and myoglobin," congratulations! You're human. And you're experiencing a form of chemophobia.

We can see the same phenomenon at work in the anti-GMO movement. "Would you want to eat something grown in a lab!?!?!" Insert mental image of crazy hair scientists with a slime-filled test tube here. And yet GMOs have no substantial nutritional difference from traditional crops.

Given how important food has been in our evolutionary history, it's reasonable to have a reaction of disgust to something unfamiliar on your plate. Ancient people who didn't have this reaction were also less likely to pass on their genes, as they were more likely to eat something poisonous. We have a lot of wiring in place to prevent us from eating something that will kill us. (Some of it is ill-suited for modern food choices.)

Today, science has the ability to analyze the components of what we eat, and because the terms sound "sciency" and are unfamiliar, we may find them as disgusting as an insect** in our salad. Using the example above, the term "myoglobin" sound distinctly unappetizing, and yet it's the defining ingredient in "au jus," a term frequently used to make food more appetizing.

As skeptics, we know that all food is a combination of chemicals. We require these chemicals as nutrients and as an energy source. And yet the list of chemicals in an orange or a potato might call to mind toxic waste disposal more than orange juice or french fries.

Skeptics also realize that we live in a time of new technologies, some of which could be quite useful in saving our species. An increasing ability to modify and manipulate our food supply could be invaluable in our upcoming battles against whatever natural or human disasters are in the offing. We should embrace them and use them wisely.

Still, lab grown meat or plants with altered genetics may not appeal to you. But the truth is that we're already eating food that comes from labs. Any processed food is likely to have come from a food chemist's bench. Ever eaten fast food? You've eaten food "that came from a lab." Veggie burgers? Labs. Frozen dinners? Labs. And what is a kitchen but a lab for preparing food?

The problem is marketing. That frozen manicotti may look appetizing on the box, but if you could see how it was developed, you might be less intersted. And as the media is reporting on new technology, the focus is on the lab, rather than the tasty burger.

So, a challenge to skeptics! Which is stronger, your knowledge that lab grown meats can be tasty and nutritious (and possibly more environmentally friendly), or your instinctive revulsion at an unusual food source?

I'm willing to take a bite. How about you?
*I say this because one of the terms is that the meat be "indistinguishable" from fresh meat, which seems an impossible and unnecessary standard.

**We should consider eating more insects too.

by Jeff Wagg

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