LONDON - It looked like a burger. It smelled like a burger. It tasted, well, almost like a burger.
The first ever lab-grown beef hamburger was cooked and eaten in London on Monday.
"We proved it's possible," said scientist Mark Post, who created the cultured minced meat in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
The scene in Riverside Studios in West London, where the event took place, looked like something you might see on a TV cooking show: There was a fake kitchen counter, a tiny sink, a single burner and a chef, of course.
The 5-ounce burger patty - which cost over $330,000 to produce and was paid for by Google co-founder Sergey Brin - arrived under a silver dome and was promptly put onto a pan to sizzle with a good dab of butter and a splash of sunflower oil.
The smells that drifted off toward the public (a few invited journalists and scientists) were subtle but unmistakably meaty.
Next came the tasting. Besides Post, only two people were allowed to have a bite of the test-tube burger: Josh Schonwald, the American author of "The Taste of Tomorrow," and Hanni Rutzler, an Austrian nutritional scientist. Both said the burger tasted "almost" like a conventional one. No one spat the meat out; no one cringed.
Rutzler gave the chef an appreciative nod.
"It's close to meat, but it's not as juicy," she said. "I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy." She added: "I would have said if it was disgusting." Schonwald said the product tasted like "an animal protein cake."
Although the burger was a culmination of a five-year research project, it took Post only three months to grow it, using stem cells harvested from a cow's shoulder. "That's faster than (raising) a cow," he said. Stem cells not only proliferate rapidly but can differentiate into different kinds of cells: muscle cells, bone cells, etc. The type of stem cells that Post used, called satellite cells, are responsible for muscle regeneration after injury.
Peter Verstrate, a Dutch food technician who worked with Post on development of the burger and who carried the meat to London by train in a cardboard box filled with dry ice, said that people react badly when they hear the words stem cells.
"But we don't eat stem cells; we eat muscles," he said.
The cells were placed in a bioreactor in a nutrient mixture that helps them proliferate. There they grew into thin, 0.02-inch strands of muscle fiber - about 20,000 of those were used to create the burger presented in London.
Verstrate said they spent months experimenting how to make lab-grown strands of muscles into an actual burger.
"The first time we baked it, in August last year, it was maybe 2, 3 grams, no more. Mark and I tasted it, and so did a representative of Mr. Brin."
The most challenging part for Verstrate was getting the color right. "The material was colorless, which was a bit strange. It was more like chicken," he said. So he added a bit of red beet juice and saffron to color the meat (which were not apparent in the taste, according to Rutzler).
Post said that lab-cultured meat can play an important role in the future: Not only could it help feed the planet, but it could also help solve environmental problems stemming from conventional meat production.
"At the global level, if all meat would be lab-grown, the greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 80 percent, and the water use by 90 percent," says Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University, who researches potential environmental impacts of lab-grown meat.
As for nutritional benefits of cultured meat, the jury is still out. But Boston University's Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and the author of "Nutrition & You" believes that it has a potential to be healthier than conventional meat.
"If they replace the saturated fats with omega-3 fats, that would be great for our health," she said.
One unknown is still the iron content of cultured meat. Post hasn't tested his burger for this nutrient, and it's possible that it doesn't contain any heme iron. That's something for the Dutch scientist to work on.
Another challenge is what many call the "yuck" factor. Cultured meat has already been dubbed "Franken-meat" or even "schmeat," though it sounded appealing in particular to those who oppose using animals for food.
"As long as there's anybody who's willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this," Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group, told the Associated Press. "Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops."