We eat ultra-processed foods all the time. So, why does lab-grown chicken feel so different?

When it comes to what is "natural," where does cultured meat fit in?

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published August 27, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Roast Chicken In A Petri Dish (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Roast Chicken In A Petri Dish (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A few weeks back, when lab-grown chicken was announced as being "approved for sale in the United States," I was overjoyed. 

As someone who's foregone all red meats (my friend clarifies it as such: "Michael doesn't eat anything that once walked on four legs"), I've been aiming to also give up poultry and fish in due time, too. Over the last few months, there has been a lot of buzz about lab-grown proteins, the restaurants and chefs who aim to incorporate it in their menu and the wondrous ways lab-grown protein might aid in animal welfare and environmental concerns. 

To me, it all seemed like good news — that is, until I brought up the topic nonchalantly when I was with friends. In my circle, at least, lab-grown meat was met with mistrust that bordered on revilement.

There were questions of "3D-printed chickens," the dangers or diseases that might be contained within lab-grown food, correlations to AI and just general unease about the future. I was befuddled. I thought we — aside from farmers and those who work in the meat industries — were all game for lab-grown meat? 

It turns out that the anxiety surrounding the innovations aren't just in my immediate circle. Back in February, a survey of 1,247 adults conducted by the AP and NORC Center for Public Affairs responded that more than half would "not try cell-based meat." In light of that data, and as I considered the subject more over the coming weeks following the conversation with my friends, a bigger, more overarching question kept coming to mind. 

In America, we eat a lot of ultra-processed foods, defined by Harvard Medical School as having: 

Many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

Recent research from Northeastern University's Network Science Institute indicates that 73% of the United States food supply is ultra-processed. That is an overwhelming amount. So, what cognitive dissonance exists that we could continue to eat ultra-processed foods, but shun lab-grown protein? 

The answer, as you can probably imagine, isn't a simple one. 

According to Nichole Dandrea-Russert, dietitian and author of "The Vegan Athlete's Nutrition Handbook", novelty is a large element here. 

"Consumers may know that ultra processed foods aren't the healthiest option, but that concept may be downplayed since ultra processed foods have become the norm and lab grown meat is a new process that is not yet accepted by all consumers," Dandrea-Russert told Salon Food. 

Despite the fact that shifting to lab-grown meat could reduce gas emissions, deforestation and pollution — and even if diners care about those causes outside of the doors of the dining room — some skeptics "may be attached to traditional ways of producing and consuming meat and might find it difficult to accept a product that is created in a lab," Dandrea-Russert said. 

This has a lot to do with what we have been conditioned to think of as "natural" as opposed to unnatural within our already distorted food system. After it was announced that chef José Andrés would serve lab-grown chicken at his DC-based restaurant China Chilcano, WAMU's Jacob Fenston and Amanda Michelle Gomez interviewed several other chefs about the development, including Chef Rob Rubba of Oyster Oyster, who voiced some skepticism. 

"I think it detaches us once again from our food source from the natural world," he said of cultivated chicken. "I think there's a lot of conscious things about it that are very nice, like 'oh, we're not harming an animal' ... But I think we just need to be more mindful of how we're eating and what we're doing to the environment. And I'm not exactly sure what that will lead to."

However, I find myself returning a statement made by Josh Tetrick that sort of hits the nail on the head for me. Tetrick, who is the the co-founder and CEO of Eat Just (GOOD Meat, one of the lab-grown chicken companies approved for sale back in June, is owned by Eat Just), told Modern Farmer it was time to push back on the concept that most of the factory-farmed chicken available in American supermarkets is somehow more virtuous. 

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"Let's just talk about that word: natural. I would ask, 'Do you think chicken that is produced in the United States—99 percent of it—do you look at that as natural?'" he asked the publication. 

This isn't to say that cultivated or lab-grown chicken is devoid of ethical quandaries. 

A lot of questions remain about how current farmers could adapt to a world with lab-grown meat without their livelihoods being completely decimated. Dandrea-Russert points to a program called "Transfarmation," run by Mercy for Animals, which has a mission of "helping farmers transition from industrial animal agriculture to growing specialty crops." 

And, as Dandrea-Russert explains, while cultured chicken is sometimes called no-kill chicken, it isn't actually devoid of animal products. 

"It uses animal cells to grow meat with a goal to create a product that is similar in taste, texture, and nutritional composition to conventional meat but without the environmental and animal welfare concerns around conventional meat," she said. "While some vegans might consider lab-grown meat as a more ethically acceptable option than conventionally raised meat, as it reduces the demand for animal farming and addresses concerns about animal welfare and environmental impact, they may still choose to avoid consuming it since it's still [technically] an animal product." 

For someone like me, though, who's not vegan (I could never give up cheese), lab-grown poultry is the ideal offering which would help me make the leap from merely abstaining from red meat to abstaining from all animal products overall.

However, as Tetrick told Modern Farmer, it is a long journey to making lab-grown chicken available commercially en masse. 

"It is real chicken," Tetrick said. "It's just made in a way that doesn't require the live animal to be a part of the production process. And because it doesn't require the live animal to be a part of the production process, we think, ultimately, that we can make a lot more of that less expensively. Now, that's a long journey to get there."

For now, lab-grown proteins aren't embraced unilaterally. But hopefully that shifts as the product becomes more commonly available and even better tasting — ideally helping it to become more generally accepted as time goes. Just like some of those ultra-processed items lining store shelves we eat now without paying any mind. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Chicken Cultured Chicken Lab-grown Food Vegetarian