A Deep Dive into the Role of 3D Scaffolds as the Building Blocks for Cultivated Meat

In addition to scaling and cost hurdles, cultivated meat production faces the unique challenge of developing final products that meet the consumer’s expectations of conventional animal-based meat, including larger pieces akin to whole cuts.

However, most prototypes are made from ground meat and do not look exactly like whole cuts. Why is this the case?

3D scaffolds

Companies in the space are experimenting with 3D structures or scaffolds to recreate the structure and taste of animal tissue to make complex products such as steaks, filets, and even burgers.

In animals, the extracellular matrix (ECM), a structure made of proteins and carbohydrates, supports the cells and guides them in their growth journey: differentiation and tissue development to make the different organs and body parts.

Scaffolds for cultivated meat try to mimic the ECM to help cells grow from a shapeless mass of animal cells to a product that looks and tastes (sensory attributes) like a familiar piece of meat.

Matrix Food Technologies
© Matrix Food Technologies

However, since the extracellular matrix in animals is made from proteins such as collagen, the field’s challenge is to make nonanimal-derived materials that effectively play the role. 

To do so, scientists leverage biology, biochemistry, materials science, and tissue engineering to create alternatives that are edible, food-safe, digestible for humans, low-cost, and, if possible, sustainable.

Making different scaffolds

According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), scaffolds can be made from natural or various biomaterials, including chitosan, alginate, cellulose, proteins such as soy and pea, and lignin or textured vegetable protein.

B2B companies are developing edible scaffolds for cultivated meat, using different sources such as algae (Seawith), plant proteins (DaNAgreen), nanofibers (Gelatex), wheat, and even fungal mycelium (Excell).

Meanwhile, scientists are investigating other possible scaffold materials. The National University of Singapore (NUS) successfully used proteins from corn, barley, and rye to 3D-printed edible cultivated meat scaffolds. And researchers at the University of Vermont began using algae-based polymers to build cell-supporting structures.

Currently, cultivated meat research relies on collagen and gelatin (the same proteins in ECM) to make scaffolds. However, with the advancements in cell ag, companies may be able to supply cell-based or recombinant collagen produced by microbes. 

Wheat scaffolding
Wheat scaffolding © Amerian Chemical Society

Scaffolds for each species

According to experts, diverse and different scaffold materials may lead to products that better mimic conventional meat and seafood cuts, appealing to a broader consumer base.

Some companies will use biodegradable materials and other plant-based scaffolds to make hybrid products containing different ratios of scaffolding. Either way, any scaffold material must meet the requirements for cooking, safety, taste, and nutrition of the final product and will be assessed for a product’s novel food safety approval.  

GOOD Meat‘s cultivated chicken (approved for sale in 2020 in Singapore and last year in the US) is made with “natural” scaffolding to allow cells to grow and shape into a desired shape enhanced with 3D food printing.

For cultivated seafood, the GFI explains that it requires specific scaffolds for each species’ cells to deliver structured products; thus different biological differences may require different approaches. The US company Wildtype uses plant-based scaffolds in its sushi-grade cultivated salmon.

Wildtype Ngiri
© Wildtype

Scaffolding tech

Different types of scaffolding technologies can assemble the materials to produce scaffolds with the required biological, structural, and mechanical properties to achieve high-quality products. They include electrospinning (Matrix Food Technologies), stereolithography, electrospray, 3D bioprinting, decellularization, and extrusion

Once a company has selected the type of scaffold relevant to a product, they use different methods to produce thick tissues using cells and scaffolds. The top-down approach involves a prefabricated, porous scaffold infused with cells, while the bottom-up method uses modular units of scaffolds and cells to construct a final shape.

Aleph Farms uses the button-up approach to make its beef steaks. The company says it has developed a 3D bioprinting platform to create a structured piece of steak using a bioink that includes muscle and fat cells and a pea protein scaffold.  

Force Foods from Israel unveils the world's first cultivated eel prototype.
Forsea’s cultivated eel product © Anatoly Michaello

Scaffold-free whole cuts

Meanwhile, scaffold-free methods exist. They leverage cells’ natural ability to secrete their extracellular matrix material, allowing for the creation of dense tissues without using any additional material.

For example, the Israeli-cultivated seafood startup Forsea claims to use organoid technology to harness natural tissue formation methods. According to the company, its organoid tech platform creates an ideal environment for fish cells to form their natural composition of native fat and muscle spontaneously in a three-dimensional tissue structure.

The UK company 3DBT also claims to have developed a cultivated pork fillet without plant-based scaffolds, making it the world’s first “100% meat” cultivated steak compared to Aleph Farms’s steaks made with plant-based scaffolds. 

Moreover, UPSIDE Foods claims its FDA-approved cultivated chicken is made without any scaffolding material, indicating the potential scalability of scaffold-free methods for cultivated meat production.

UPSIDE Foods receives regulatory approval to produce and sell its cultivated chicken in the US
Image courtesy of UPSIDE Foods

The challenge of cost

The most significant challenge to developing structured products and whole cuts is that the industry relies on expensive materials from biomedical suppliers or plant-based materials, according to the GFI.  

Biomaterials suppliers for cultivated meat are expected to reduce production costs and improve product structure, potentially increasing consumer appeal and the value of cultivated meat products. 

Additionally, advances in bioreactors, computational modeling, and the creation of 3D microenvironments may drive innovation in structured product creation. At the same time, advances in tissue engineering will help develop structured meat products at scale. 

The Good Food Institute states in its cultivated meat report, “The holy grail of the cultivated meat industry is to produce a complex meat product such as a steak or chicken breast in a pre-programmed way, each and every time.

“Significant advances in tissue engineering techniques will be needed to commercialize structured products at scale. Additional challenges lie in discovering the methods and materials that will be most amenable to large-scale production.”

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