Scientists Say New Hybrid Beef Rice Could Cost Just a Dollar per Pound

Here’s a type of fusion food you don’t see every day: fluffy, steamed grains of rice, chock-full of beef cells.

It sounds Frankenstein. But the hybrid plant-animal concoction didn’t require any genetic engineering—just a hefty dose of creativity. Devised by Korean scientists, the avant-garde grains are like lab-grown meat with a dose of carbohydrates.

The hybrid rice includes grains grown with beef muscle cells and fatty tissue. Steamed together, the resulting bowl has a light pink hue and notes of cream, butter, coconut oil, and a rich beefy umami.

The rice also packs a nutritional punch, with more carbohydrates, protein, and fat than normal rice. It’s like eating rice with a small bite of beef brisket. Compared to lab-grown meat, the hybrid rice is relatively easy to grow, taking less than a week to make a small batch.

It is also surprisingly affordable. One analysis showed the market price of hybrid rice with full production would be roughly a dollar per pound. All ingredients are edible and meet food safety guidelines in Korea.

Rice is a staple food in much of the world. Protein, however, isn’t. Hybrid rice could supply a dose of much-needed protein without raising more livestock.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” said study author Sohyeon Park at Yonsei University in a press release.

The study is the latest entry into a burgeoning field of “future foods”—with lab-grown meat being a headliner—that seek to cut down carbon dioxide emissions while meeting soaring global demand for nutritious food.

“There has been a surge of interest over the past five years in developing alternatives to conventional meat with lower environmental impacts,” said Dr. Neil Ward, an agri-food and climate specialist at the University of East Anglia who was not involved in the study. “This line of research holds promise for the development of healthier and more climate-friendly diets in future.”

Future Food

Many of us share a love for a juicy steak or a glistening burger.

But raising livestock puts enormous pressure on the environment. Their digestion and manure produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. They consume copious amounts of resources and land. With standards of living rising across many countries and an ever-increasing global population, demand for protein is rapidly growing.

How can we balance the need to feed a growing world with long-term sustainability? Here’s where “future foods” come in. Scientists have been cooking up all sorts of new-age recipes. Algae, cricket-derived proteins, and 3D-printed food are heading to a futuristic cookbook near you. Lab-grown chicken has already graced menus in upscale restaurants in Washington DC and San Francisco. Meat grown inside soy beans and other nuts has been approved in Singapore.

The problem with nut-based scaffolds, explained the team in their paper, is that they can trigger allergies. Rice, in contrast, has very few allergens. The grain grows rapidly and is a culinary staple for much of the world. While often viewed as a carbohydrate, rice also contains fats, proteins, and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

“Rice already has a high nutrient level,” said Park. But better yet, it has a structure that can accommodate other cells—including those from animals.

Rice, Rice, Baby

The structure of a single grain of rice is like an urban highway system inside a dome. “Roads” crisscross the grain, intersecting at points but also leaving an abundance of empty space.

This structure provides lots of surface area and room for beef cells to grow, wrote the team. Like a 3D scaffold, the “roads” nudge cells in a certain direction, eventually populating most of the rice grain.

Animal cells and rice proteins don’t normally mix well. To get beef cells to stick to the rice scaffold, the team added a layer of glue made of fish gelatin, a neutral-tasting ingredient commonly used as a thickener in cooking in many Asian countries. The coating linked starchy molecules inside the rice grains to the beef cells and melted away after steaming the grains.

The study used muscle and fat cells. For seven days, the cells rested at the bottom of the rice, mingling with the grains. They thrived, growing twice as fast as they would in a petri dish.

“I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice,” said Park in the press release.

Rice can rapidly go soft and mushy inside liquids. But the fishy coating withstood the nutrient bath and supported the rice’s internal scaffolds, allowing the beef cells—either muscle or fat—to grow.

Beefy Rice

Future foods need to be tasty to catch on. This includes texture.

Like variations of pasta, different types of rice have a different bite. The hybrid rice expanded after cooking, but with more chew. When boiled or steamed, it was a bit harder and more brittle than normal rice, but with a nutty, slightly sweet and savory taste.

Compared to normal supermarket rice, the hybrid rice packed a nutritious punch. Its carbohydrate, protein, and fat levels all increased, with protein getting the biggest boost.

Eating 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the hybrid rice is like eating the same amount of plain rice with a bite of lean beef, the authors wrote in the paper.

For all future foods, cost is the elephant in the room. The team did their homework. Their hybrid rice could have a production cycle of just three months, perhaps even shorter with optimized growing procedures. It’s also cost-effective. Rice is far more affordable than beef, and if commercialized, they estimate the price could be around a dollar a pound.

Although the scientists used beef cells in this study, a similar strategy could be used to grow chicken, shrimp, or other proteins inside rice.

Future foods offer a path towards sustainability (although some researchers have questioned the climate impact of lab-grown meat). The new study suggests engineered food can reduce the environmental impact of raising livestock. Even with lab procedures, the carbon footprint for growing hybrid rice is a fraction of farming.

While beef-scented rice may not be for everyone, the team is already envisioning “microbeef sushi” using the beef-rice hybrid or producing the grain as a “complete meal.” Because the ingredients are food safe, hybrid rice may easily navigate food regulations on its way to a supermarket near you.

“Now I see a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food. It could one day serve as food relief for famine, military ration, or even space food,” said Park.

Image Credit: Dr. Jinkee Hong / Yonsei University

Shelly Fan
Shelly Fan
Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog Her first book, "Will AI Replace Us?" (Thames & Hudson) was published in 2019.
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