Cellular agriculture is generally associated with the production of protein from meat, dairy products and eggs. Today, Finnish researchers are turning to another restaurant staple: coffee.
The project responds to the growing global demand for coffee beans and the sustainability challenges facing the sector.
An “urgent need” for an alternative coffee
Coffee is the third most consumed drink in the world, behind water and tea, and global consumption is on the rise. Still, production is struggling to keep up and the International Coffee Organization expects supply to barely meet global demand this year.
This does not bode well for the future of the sector, with the potential for global coffee demand to triple by 2050.
At the same time, the sector faces several major sustainability challenges. As farmers increase their acreage to meet growing demand, deforestation is a concern. Fluctuations in prices endanger the livelihoods of coffee farmers, while rising temperatures due to climate change make it more difficult to grow Arabica coffee.
According to the Finnish Technical Research Center (VTT), there is an “urgent need” for alternative methods of coffee production. An VTT research team, led by Dr. Heiko Rischer, has found a potential solution in cell farming.
How is cellular coffee made?
Cellular farming is perhaps best known for its applications in cell-based meat and seafood. However, it is also used to recreate dairy protein without the cow and egg protein without the hen.
In coffee, the concept of cellular farming is the same, explained Dr Rischer. “Instead of growing animal cells, it’s growing plant cells in this case.”
Once the coffee cell lines are established, they are transferred to bioreactors where they produce biomass. In the same way that growth media are used to smell animal cells in the production of laboratory-grown meat, nutrient media are used to grow plant cell cultures.
“However, nutrient media for plant cell cultures are much less complex than those for animal cells”, Dr Rischer told this publication.
By being less complex, the support is also less expensive. This is an undeniable boon for the future of cell culture coffee, because the high cost of growth media in laboratory meat is one of the main obstacles to the sector.
“Scaling is also easier because plant cells grow freely suspended in the medium while animal cells grow attached to surfaces.” added the head of the research team.
The undifferentiated coffee cells, or biomass, are then analyzed, before being harvested and dried. The dried powder is then roasted and infused to make filter coffee.
Does it taste and smell like coffee?
The new coffee has been evaluated by VTT’s sensory panel and the first results seem promising.
“In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and our analytical examination revealed that the profile of the brew was similar to that of regular coffee” Dr. Rischer revealed.
“However, coffee making is an art and involves iterative optimization under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work forms the basis for such work.
The experience of driving VTT’s first cup of cell culture coffee was “exciting,” said the head of the research team, who believes that lab-grown coffee production could be “scaled up” for production. commercial, with regulatory approval granted, within the next four years.
Cell-based coffee is a new food and would require approval from Novel Food before it can be marketed in Europe. It’s a similar story in the United States, where regulatory approval from the FDA would have to be sought before marketing.
Potential of cellular coffee
VTT researchers were not the first to believe in the potential of cell-based coffee, the idea having first been published in the scientific literature in 1974 (PM Townsley). However, they have now proven that lab-grown coffee “can be a reality,” according to Dr Rischer.
“Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it comes time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation as well as regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the road to a commercial product ”, he added.
Of course, without a competitive price, the approach will not be successful. Future piloting will provide the exact numbers to calculate production costs, we were told, but thanks to the lower cost of media and high scalability potential, Dr Rischer expects the product to be ” certainly lower ‘than that of cell-based meat.
“The costs will be significantly affected by the economy of scale.”
Regarding the appetite for cellular coffee in Europe, the first unrepresentative surveys suggest that consumers are open to cellular agriculture.
A recent survey in France and Germany, for example, indicated that although awareness of cultured meat is low, 44% of French people and 58% of Germans said they would be ready to try cultured meat. Thirty-seven percent of French consumers and 56% of Germans said they would be willing to buy it themselves.
For Dr Rischer, the “real impact” of this scientific work will come through companies that are ready to rethink the production of food ingredients and start developing commercial applications.
“Ultimately, all efforts should result in more sustainable and healthier food for the benefit of consumers and the planet.”
Currently, there is only one cellular agricultural food product on the market. Late last year, Eat Just received regulatory approval to market its cell-based chicken ingredient in Singapore.
There are several options for marketing a lab-grown coffee product, Dr Rischer continued. “Product development and regulatory approval require significant investment and we are keen to collaborate with dedicated industry players. ”