Cultivated creations: lab-grown plant cells could deliver new superfoods

Researchers are working on a way to replace crops by growing plant cells that are sustainable, nutritious and offer NPD potential.

15 March 2018

All eyes have been on meat produced from animal cells, but could we be seeing fruit and vegetable crops moving from the land into the lab soon?

Scientists from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are certainly trying to make it possible, developing a new way to produce plant-based foods through cell culture technology.

The researchers examined the nutritional and sensory properties of dried and fresh cells grown from cloudberry, lingonberry and stoneberry. They found their technique could deliver healthier, cheaper and more sustainable plant-based foods. The ultimate aim is to negate the need for crops.

"This is not only a completely new opportunity for the food industry, but to society as a whole,” said Emilia Nordlund, leader of VTT's Food Solutions Team.

“There is not enough arable land to meet the growing global population's food demands [and] new solutions are desperately needed. Cell cultures have serious potential for meeting this need.”

So how did the lab-grown foodstuff stack up?

Higher in health

Surprisingly, the study found lab-grown fruit is healthier for you without compromising on taste.

The fruits’ nutritional value was better than conventionally grown crops, with a higher protein content of between 14-19% and more unsaturated fatty acids.

The berry-like flavour was more intense in the dried samples, which were also “melting appealingly in mouth,” the report found, while they also had a “pleasant, fresh and mild flavour.” The cells also looked like the fresh fruit they were derived from.

The dietary fibre of the samples varied between 21 and 37%, which is more than in breakfast cereals, the study reported. The lab-grown samples' essential amino acids – which are important to muscle, bone and tissue health – were also higher than those in soy.

Consumer acceptance was also gauged on a small scale for the study, with young, tech-orientated urban citizens most open to the idea of plant food from cells.

Smoothies, compotes and snacks

But while there are similarities between the crop- and cell-grown fruit, Heiko Rischer, leader of VTT's Plant Biotechnology Research Team, argued that the technology could mean it is treated as an original ingredient.

"Biomass produced with plant cell culture technology should be considered as completely new food material, which is why their characteristics should not necessarily be compared with corresponding fresh fruits,” he said.

“Their excellent nutritional properties are a sign of great future potential of plant cell cultures in creating new types of superfoods. The variations produced by using different plants offer limitless possibilities.”

There is already a lot of interest from the food sector, with specific development projects already underway, but for the moment they are being kept under wraps.

But the study does say there are opportunities for the food industry to create new types of healthy food products and ingredients, such as smoothies, caviar-like compotes and snack foods, from the plant cells and their dried versions.

“The key thing to remember in product development and from the logistics point of view is that all materials are always at their best when they are fresh. However, only the sky seems to be the limit when exploring new product innovations with the cell materials,” the study said.

The centre’s scientists believe the technology could be applied to a number of ideas, including food vending machines that enables consumers to buy healthy food products tailored to their personal tastes.

An appliance designed for use in a cafe or restaurant could also include a bioreactor for growing a fresh cell compote to be added to a food product.

The technology also has the potential to reduce waste in the food chain by ensuring production happened in cities, cutting out the need for transportation and the resultant spoilage.

For now, the researchers will continue to develop new plant cell lines and food designs, while also looking towards regulatory approval.

Could technology be the answer to the next tasty superfood? It’s definitely a sustainable idea.

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