Food from the lab – how healthy can it be?


Author: Katrin Weinhandl, acib GmbH

A balanced diet is important, we learn that from an early age. The more natural the ingredients and the shorter the supply chains, the better for our health and for the environment. Nevertheless, a trend is currently developing in biotechnology towards food ingredients fresh from the laboratory. Probiotics from intestinal bacteria, flavourings from yeast fungi or artificial meat from animal cell cultures – all these examples are the subject of daily research in industrial biotechnology.
Sounds very unappetizing at first glance and by no means healthy! A nice Austrian proverb says about this: “What the farmer does not know, he does not eat”, and so the new ingredients and nutritional concepts are sometimes met with great scepticism. Is this scepticism justified? After all, the laboratory counterpart is far removed from natural foods.

Trendsetter Food from the Lab-bench

First of all, one must get to the bottom of the question of how the need for laboratory-grown food came about in the first place. For one thing, as the world’s population has grown, the demand for food has increased dramatically. By 2050, there will likely be about 10 billion people living on the planet, which will push traditional food production methods to their limits. In addition, agriculture and animal husbandry will become a real environmental problem as demand increases. Incidentally, this does not so much concern the small organic farmer next door who farms for his own consumption. The environmental problem in question is mainly due to factory farming and the expansion of agricultural land, which causes soil and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

Healthy or unhealthy? That is the question!

Therefore, research must be done to find more sustainable alternatives without, of course, compromising food safety. What hardly anyone knows is that foods from the laboratory open up the possibility of even increasing food safety, because these products can be guaranteed to have been produced free of pesticides, antibiotics or other harmful substances. At the same time, new approaches to food design also enable the addition of specific nutrients that have the potential to reduce malnutrition or address health concerns. Thus, a clear distinction must be made between synthetic foods, which should be consumed in low amounts, and the “novel foods” that offer an alternative or supplement to conventional foods. However, it is certainly not easy to determine this for the particular product.

Tests and approval procedures

We can be sure that nothing ends up on our plates that has not been comprehensively tested by the relevant authorities. In the development of laboratory foods, both safety factors and ethical issues must be adequately considered. In Austria, the AGES (Agency for Health and Food Safety) is responsible for testing food safety according to European standards. Factors that are hazardous to health (pathogenic microorganisms, pollutants from the environment, pesticides, drug residues, toxins, etc.) must not exceed defined limits in the analyses, otherwise the products may not be sold. Novel foods, i.e. new additives or newly manufactured foods, must first undergo a risk assessment by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) before they are approved for the market.

Tomorrow’s menu

The ultimate goal of a “novel food” approach will always be the sustainable health of society combined with reduced environmental impact. Therefore, one can dare with a clear conscience to eat a burger made from cultured meat or probiotics from a test tube. But as Paracelsus already knew: “The dose makes the poison”. A balanced, varied diet is still best for our health, and many “novel food” approaches still have a long way to go, which will depend on open-minded consumers. But we are all curious, aren’t we?
Picture credits: Pixels (Mikhail Nilov)