The debate over what to call protein grown from cells has long been unsettled, practically since the first public tasting of a cultivated beef burger back in 2013. Back then, news coverage described the burger as “lab-grown.” But a new study set to be published in the Journal of Food Science has a replacement to recommend: “cell-based.”
The naming challenge has proven particularly vexing for makers of cultured meat. The technique used to create these foods remains provocative—growing a piece of meat or fish from cells—but the final product happens to also be quite ordinary. Foods like chicken nuggets, burgers and slices of fish.
In a study of just over 3,000 participants commissioned by the cell-based seafood maker BlueNalu, Rutgers University psychologist William K. Hallman, PhD, tested consumer reactions to seven different possible product names.
The former FDA regulator found “cell-based” to be the clear winner, or at least the clearest and least confusing of the candidates. The findings were presented by Hallman at a conference for the Institute for Food Technologists held virtually this year.
Both the FDA and USDA require a clear common product name for consumers to be able to identify foods without confusion. The name should make clear what you’re eating by conveying enough information about the food’s properties or ingredients.
Hallman’s survey looked only at names for seafood, which has several particular legal requirements. The common name should make clear that the cell-based product is different from wild-caught and farmed fish, for example, and also clearly identify the food as an allergen for those who have seafood allergies.
The survey measured consumer reactions to the following names and descriptions: “cell-based,” “cell-cultured,” “cultivated,” “cultured,” and the descriptions “produced using cellular aquaculture,” “cultivated from the cells of” and “grown directly from the cells of.”
When it comes to seafood, cultured and cultivated are tricky. These terms already have particular connotations in the seafood category, as cultured suggests farmed fish or aquaculture and cultivated suggests fermented fish products. Unsurprisingly then, Hallman found consumers were more likely to be able to avoid confusion with descriptions that used “cell-based” or “cells” in the name rather than “cultured” alone.
Cell-based seafood also happened to perform better across categories designed to measure public acceptance of these alternative proteins, such as nutritional quality, naturalness and food safety. Across all of the tested names, consumers were able to recognize that this type of seafood is also an allergen.
No matter the name, there is no product actually released on the market just yet, despite the more than three dozen companies working on various cultured or cell-based proteins, including chicken nuggets, wagyu beef and ahi tuna.
Growing these cells has required pharmaceutical-grade nutrients that are also very expensive. While companies are working on replacing these expensive ingredients with cheaper alternatives, it’s not easy to find a substitute that will maintain the same quality and robust cell growth. These companies are also fiercely protective of their intellectual property, so the scientists working on these foods can’t build on the work of scientists at other companies, which has also slowed advancement in the industry.
Yet BlueNalu’s CEO Lou Cooperhouse, who was also at the conference to introduce the findings, says BlueNalu is on track to make a small commercial release by the latter half of 2021.
While there hasn’t been industry alignment around any single term to date, this research may help give the debate a nudge forward. According to Hallman, critics are more likely to use terms like “lab meat” and “fake meat,” while animal advocates would prefer to see the more laudatory “clean meat” on the label.
The companies making these foods prefer the terms “cultured” and “cell-based,” though they haven’t been able to agree on one over the other. Eat JUST’s CEO, Josh Tetrick, has said publicly that he prefers the term “cultured,” for example.
Although Hallman’s research points to a winner in “cell-based,” Hallman added that “cell-cultured” emerged from his research a “pretty close second.” Perhaps the hyphenated term can serve as some sort of industry compromise. They still have some time to figure it out, it seems.