Full metal chocolate
What I talk about when I talk about the safety of cultivated meat, heavy metals in dark chocolate and aromatic compounds in food.
Last week, I wrote about regulatory approval for cultivated meat. Because I’ve researched the topic (a lot) and talked to founders (a lot), there’s always too much for one story, which means I left a lot on the cutting room floor.
The Fast Company profile covered Eric Schulze, VP of regulatory at Upside Foods–a cultivated meat startup based in Emeryville, CA. Schulze, a proud Texan, grills and eats meat. He wants to “unburden himself of his guilt.” He also wants to make meat safer for human consumption. (This is good!)
Schulze, I write, is the reason Upside cleared the FDA’s regulatory process so “easily.” It took four years of conversation (with probably a year or two of documentation) but still, it felt “fast.” In my research, I talked to a former FDA senior analyst (also named Larisa) and Andrew Stout, a New Harvest fellow and scientist at Tufts University. Both know cultivated meat better than I do. Both felt certain that we were being cautious with launching meat analogues into the world and that I had little to worry about.
Now, we don’t know everything, and we don’t know what may happen when we’re all eating lab-grown meat, but Andrew clarified areas that *could be of concern. He said that IF there were going to be potentially adverse health effects, “it would be the classic ones – contamination at harvest, final harvest, and packaging.” (These areas will primarily be overseen by the USDA.) These are the same things we may worry about with traditional animal meat, he said. Whatever meat you decide to eat, they both come with cautionary risks.
Another area of concern, he said, is sensitization and allergenicity. How is cultivated meat grown and what inputs are used — that may not be in the final product — and what plant proteins are used to make any scaffolding or to give lab meat a better texture? If we don’t know every little thing, people that are allergic – for example to peas, soy, potato, corn – could have a reaction.
Safety is a big deal. I stress it in my interviews, and I bring it up in my book. Our food system is safe, except when we find out about arsenic in baby food and salmonella in spinach, a leafy green I buy often. What else? This new Consumer Reports study details that lead and cadmium are found in dark chocolate. I was disappointed to read this, but not surprised. (Also, horrified because I eat dark chocolate almost every day.)
Consumer Reports tested 28 bars including Hershey's, Theo, Trader Joe's, Alter Eco, and Dove and found most had higher levels than state regulations allow. In your diet, just one ounce would put you over your daily limit. This is most concerning for pregnant women and children, but there are heavy metals found in other soil-based foods, so you know, one ounce here, one ounce there. It adds up.
Thankfully, there are a few better choices including Mast, Taza, Ghirardelli, and Valrhona, which all still had lead or cadmium, but are low enough to be considered safe for consumption. The key to the Consumer Reports review is California, which has stricter regulations based on prop 65; and why 23 of the 28 brands failed the test. California's maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) for lead is .5 mg and cadmium is 4.1 mg per day. The FDA (no surprise) sets higher limits for the rest of the country.
But (always with the buts), there are many who say our food system is the safest it's ever been. Including Schulze, and Jerold Mande, a former FDA senior advisor. You can read his thoughts here. Safe and health are two very different worlds. I want a food system that is healthy *and safe.
Why are lead and cadmium found in chocolate? For cadmium, it’s the soil. Trees take cadmium up through dirt, and it’s then stored in the cocoa bean. Most cocoa is grown in developing countries with less strict regulations against fertilizers and sprays that make the problem harder to change. Lead happens a bit differently. This metal comes from the drying process — when beans are left in the sun for a few days. “During that time, lead-filled dust and dirt accumulated on the beans,” says the CR report.
This makes addressing the problem tricky—it’s not under easy watch and it needs multiple solutions. Are we okay with levels that don’t meet California regulation but still fall under the FDA’s numbers? The FDA says it’s negligible. But they aren’t tasked with keeping us healthy. Only safe. Is there a difference?
When and if cultivated meat makes it to market, it will most likely be a hybrid product – cultivated meat cells mixed with plant protein and plant-based fats. I interviewed Josh Tetrick, CEO of Alameda-based Eat Just, for this recent profile and he told me that their cultivated chicken will be “74%+ chicken and the rest plant-based. We could do 100% if we felt like it but having binders makes it a more optimal product—the structure is better.”
Whether any of it will be safe to eat – long term, every day of the week, breakfast, lunch and dinner – is another question for so many things we eat from sausage to spinach. How can we be safer and healthier? Eat as much whole food, plant-based as you can AND with as much variety. This includes dark chocolate––diversify the brands you eat. And do your research.
Thanks for reading Technically Food! Subscribe for free below.
Curious about the aromatic compounds in some of your favorite foods? Try this recipe pairing site to learn the best ways of pairing. Then plan a dinner party and invite me over.
How do heavy metals get into food? Read this NYT piece on baby food.
An interesting article about why some of the ingredients in plant-based meats may inhibit our absorption of iron and zinc, two micronutrients our bodies need, but that we cannot produce.
Where you can find me:
Edible Education is happening this semester at UC Berkeley. You can attend the talks, which are every Wednesday at 6pm. I’m hoping to attend the talk on 2/15 with Christopher Gardener, a nutrition researcher at Stanford. You can access the full calendar using a PDF link on the left side of this web page. (Be sure you sign up if you’re attending.)
I’ll be at Future Food Tech in SF on March 16-17. Who’s gonna be there?
My Fast Company profile on Eric Schulze mentioned above.
What I’m reading:
I just finished “American Dirt” about a family living in Acapulco that’s attacked by a local cartel—the husband is a journalist. After the incident, the mother and son flee to the United States—a journey of about 2,500 miles. It’s a page turner. The book saw a ton of press about representation in publishing, and after reading the authors note at the end about her connection to the story and her research, it seemed that I understood why she wrote her novel. Who can write what is a difficult topic. A clearer topic is this: the publishing industry needs to open its doors to *more diverse voices, and offer fewer seats for white people.
Thanks for reading Technically Food! Every free subscription delivers joy to my in-box.
I’m really interested in the mock meat topic. I’ve spoken to nutritional scientists who are not so much concerned about the ‘safety’ as whether they’re good for our health. An array of nutrients can be lost in processing, bioavailability of things like zinc and iron can be inferior to that of actual meat, disruption of the food matrix not good for our microbiome, often high in sugar/salt etc. I’m concerned these products are just another ultra processed food that we should be avoiding. Very interesting post though.
As a food safety expert and food technologist, I am super worried about prions in cultured meat and the issue is getting almost no attention. :( Probably because we don't know a lot about prions (except that they are scary and deadly). Chicken cultured meat is less risky for prions than beef and that might be why Upside went for chicken not beef. But using bovine serum to make chicken - which Upside might do - increases the prion risk.
Prions are impossible to test for and take a few years to kill consumers so although the likelihood of prion contamination is low the consequences would be catastrophic.
Separate to any safety concerns, the information we learned about Upside's cultured chicken manufacturing process shows there are aspects of the cultured meat industry that many consumers would find distasteful or worrying. These include the use of hormones from other animals; the need for animal foetus products and the use of genetic engineering technologies.
I've written more about these 'hidden' issues in cultured meat safety elsewhere but won't spam your comments with links (!), let me know if you want to chat/cross-post.