Curious Cook: Meat from air

Eating in front of a laptop or eating while stressed can cause overeating. — TONY SHNAGL/Pexels

A company in California is embarking on a novel way of tackling the global warming crisis, and I find their idea ingenious.

Air Protein is a startup business that grandiosely claims to want to make salmon steaks and juicy fillets of meat by sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

At least that is what the marketing is suggesting, and I have no doubt it is a blatant exaggeration.

But the technology they are pioneering is plausible for creating proteins from the air, via the use of hydrogenotrophic (hydrogen-loving) bacteria fermented in water tanks (the water provides the hydrogen) and fed with oxygen, carbon dioxide, minerals, and nitrogen.

The idea was developed during the mid-1960s by Nasa, working on a food provision solution for astronauts on long space journeys.

They experimented with bacteria that can metabolise hydrogen for energy while consuming carbon dioxide, minerals, and other gases to produce amino acids which become microbial proteins (MP). The target end product is a protein-rich residue that has roughly the same amino acid profile as meat proteins.

This residue can then be turned into more palatable meat-like products via what Air Protein calls “culinary techniques”, such as a combination of pressure, temperature, and unspecified “cooking techniques” which undoubtedly must include some additives such as fibres, flavourings and food colours to add texture, taste and to promote presentation.

In the future, we could all be eating microbial protein-based steaks. — NADIN SH/PexelsIn the future, we could all be eating microbial protein-based steaks. — NADIN SH/Pexels

Hydrogenotrophic bacteria is an interesting subject, as they are also found in the human gastrointestinal microbiota (HGM).

Within the HGM, there are three classes of hydrogenotrophic organisms: methanogens, sulfate-reducing bacteria, and acetogens.

All of them are involved somewhat in the production of odorous compounds and gases within the human intestines, and thus probably not suited for the production of MPs. The types of hydrogenotrophic organisms used by Air Protein in the creation of MPs are not currently disclosed but are likely to be bacteria such as curpiavidus necator, which is derived from the soil.

The requirement for large volumes of carbon dioxide in the process means that the production of hydrogenotrophic MPs is highly carbon-negative.

For the same weight in protein mass, it is claimed to use an amazing 1.5 million times less land than beef, with water consumption also 15,000 times less than compared to beef production.

MPs have an exceptionally high protein content, ranging from 50% to 83% of their dry weight.

Importantly, hydrogenotrophic organisms have a high conversion rate from the base ingredients, exceeding the plant proteins produced by other MP sources such as yeasts and fungi.

As the production of hydrogenotrophic MPs is not seasonal and may be housed in closed systems connected to renewable sources of energy, a modern MP “factory” can be very efficient all year round.

For normal crops, the annual solar-to-biomass energy efficiency rarely exceeds 1% averaged out over the year.

Even during the growing season, the efficiency can rise only to a maximum of 4.3% for some crops.

However, for hydrogenotrophic MPs, efficiencies of up to 10% have been demonstrated in test conditions.

There are plans to install direct-air capture plants to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the scale of production of MPs increases.

The plan is to make MPs not just price competitive with real meat but to also be competitive with lower-cost proteins such as soy and mycoproteins.

The whole scheme seems plausible, and someday in the near future, one might expect to be dining on MP-based steaks and not even notice the difference between them and meat (hopefully).

Why blue plates?

Despite my best intentions, keeping the weight down is proving to be more difficult than anticipated.

This may be because of some bad eating habits known to cause problems with weight control. The first is quite obvious, which is the way food is consumed.

A common mistake is to grab some food on the go, to munch in the car, or on a bench while heading somewhere else.

Eating food on blue plates as opposed to red plates can be the difference between eating less and more. — DENYS GROMOV/PexelsEating food on blue plates as opposed to red plates can be the difference between eating less and more. — DENYS GROMOV/Pexels

This is definitely not a good idea if they are unhealthy fast foods, and still may not be so great even if they are homemade meals.

The main reason is that the brain does not get the right signals about the food consumed.

There are too many distractions and in some cases, some stress as well, which raises levels of hormones such as cortisol which is linked to weight gain.

So perhaps it is time to cut down on picnics outdoors.

Additionally, it takes around 20 minutes for the brain to process information about food and the quantities of food eaten.

So it is very easy to overeat within the first few minutes of a meal, especially if distracted.

There is another curious aspect to eating recently uncovered by Johns Hopkins University, though it is more particularly related to the absorption of medications.

Simulations have indicated that medications take, on average, 23 minutes to be absorbed by the digestive system if ingested in an upright position.

However, if the medication is taken by someone leaning to the right, then the time needed is only around 10 minutes. But if the medication is taken when leaning to the left, then it can take over 100 minutes to be absorbed.

The study was done with only one type of pill, so it is unclear if the effects can be generalised across other medications and/or food, but it is interesting.

Also, it seems that the colour of plates has an effect on eating patterns too. Red, yellow, orange, or other brightly coloured patterns appear to stimulate appetite and cause more food to be eaten, and faster as well. So maybe one can consider having plates with more muted colours like blue or some other sombre/dark colours.

The other common problem is dining out with friends and family.

It is easy to overeat when distracted by conversations with family and friends when dining out. —RON LACH/PexelsIt is easy to overeat when distracted by conversations with family and friends when dining out. —RON LACH/Pexels

When distracted by conversations, it is very easy to overeat, and especially to over-indulge in the pre-dinner aperitifs and snacks before the 20 minutes when the brain finally catches up with what one is ingesting, assuming that the alcohol has not also impaired its function to some degree.

But the main dietary culprit for many people is related to both relaxation and stress e.g. eating in front of the TV to unwind.

The net effect of these bad habits is that the brain is spending too much time and effort processing work-related issues, and/or being distracted from managing the food intake. Either way, the body tends to still crave more food than necessary in such situations.

Stress also simply causes many people to overeat. Hormones induced by stress can often provoke the overeating of high-calorie foods. This is because, in our distant paleolithic past, stress was often related to uncertainties about survival.

Hence the natural instinct then was to consume and store as much energy as possible in the body to prepare for periods of deprivation.

The physiology of humans still retains this instinct, though it now often serves to create more social stress and thus becomes a self-reinforcing negative cycle.

From a personal perspective, a corrective step would be to ensure that the brain is much more engaged during the process of eating, and not let distractions or stress influence calorie intake.

This is probably not as easy as it sounds as there is a lot of work to do, but it would be a good start.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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