HMT: Using Metabolomics to Improve Cell-Based Meat Nutrition and Taste

This article was sponsored by Human Metabolome Technologies.

From environmental sustainability to animal welfare and food security, one of the most significant benefits of producing food through cellular agriculture is the public health implications.

Cellular agriculture is the field of producing animal products, such as meat and dairy, directly from cell cultures instead of from animals. Compared to conventional animal agriculture, cellular agriculture offers a sustainable and alternative way to produce the exact same animal products to meet the growing global demand for animal products like meat.

Beyond improving the safety of the food production process, cellular agriculture has the potential to enhance the nutritional profile of food products. From adding nutrients like fats or vitamins in the production process to manipulating metabolic pathways, cellular agriculture food products, like cell-based meat, can ultimately enhance and improve the nutritional profile of our food products.

As more cell-based meat companies look to come to market, it will be important for the companies to look at the nutritional profile of their developing products. Beyond supporting the field’s regulatory approval process, consumers may also find cell-based meat more appealing with an improved nutritional and food safety profile compared to its conventional counterpart.

One way for cellular agriculture companies to ensure their nutritional profiles match conventional animal products is through metabolomic studies. According to Alexander Buko PhD, Vice President of Human Metabolome Technologies (HMT), metabolomic studies offer a way for cellular agriculture companies to accelerate product development and monitor nutritional and taste attributes. 

Dr. Buko has spent over 35 years in pharmaceutical research and 8 years at HMT providing and interpreting metabolomic data for a variety of industries including food and beverage.

“Metabolomics is an enabling technology that can be used to accelerate product development. Ultimately, we are trying to speed the whole process for getting our client’s best product to market faster.”

From Food to Biotech and Back

Based in Japan, with offices in the United States and Europe, HMT is a global metabolomics service company that helps companies accelerate product development through metabolomic studies. Metabolomics is the field of measuring small metabolites, such as vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, lipids, carotenes, and fatty acids. From medical research to food production, metabolomic data offers a range of valuable insights for different industries and sectors.

Considering how cellular agriculture sits at the intersection of cutting-edge biotech innovation into the food sector, Dr. Buko stated that HMT is uniquely positioned to support the cellular agriculture industry based on the company’s own work in both the food & beverage industry and the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors.

“As a Japanese company, we really cut our teeth in the food area. If you think about our client base in Japan, there is a heavy focus on the food and agriculture industry.  A lot of HMT’s initial focus was providing metabolomic data for rice, sushi, meat, and other agricultural products, including wheat and beverage. Later, we started focusing on more on medical research because that was the dominant need in Europe and in the US for metabolomics, but we have not lost sight of the potential for the food industry area.

“We didn't find that we were able to get into the conventional large and well-established food industry because most had their own solutions for measuring nutrients and taste for product quality and production. But when cellular agriculture started building up into this space over the recent years, we saw an opportunity to help support this emerging sector.”

"We can compare the nutrient profile of the wildtype animal tissue or product to the cell-based product (cells, media, tissues) to see how well the product matches by using only small amounts of material."

With a background in both the food industry and medical research, Dr. Buko stated HMT’s experience in both sectors helped the company understand how best to support the emerging cellular agriculture sector by merging food production with what HMT knows about essential metabolites for health and cell line optimization.

Metabolomics and Cell-Based Meat

Through metabolomic studies, Dr. Buko states cellular agriculture companies can compare their product’s lipids, vitamins, overall nutritional value, and taste to the conventional or wild animal product.

“We can compare the nutrient profile of the wildtype animal tissue or product to the cell-based product (cells, media, tissues) to see how well the [cell-based meat] product matches to the conventional product during production & development using only small amounts of material.

“For example, we can look at a piece of chicken, fish, or meat and measure its nutritional and taste benefits using a metabolic or nutrient profile. While macromolecules like carbohydrates and proteins are not directly measured, metabolomics can measure saturated fats, unsaturated fat (such as omega-3, omega-6, omega-9 fatty acids), vitamins, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, carotenes, flavonoids and polyamines in cellular products and natural tissues.

“In this way, we’re looking at the types of metabolites that provide the nutrient value of the wildtype animal, as well as taste elements and compare to the products in development.”

“Metabolomics is an enabling technology that can be used to accelerate product development. Ultimately, we are trying to speed the whole process for getting our client’s best product to market faster.”

According to Dr. Buko, the metabolic profile of a cell-based meat can be related to the product’s taste. “Taste is one of the most important product attributes to consider when developing a new food product. Many metabolites have been linked to the taste receptors for umami, sweet, sour, and bitter.

“If you look at the major classes of compounds in these [cell-based meat] products (amino acids, fatty acids, nucleic acids, antioxidants, carotenes, vitamins) and compare that to the wildtype, you will see that they are similar. They do not need to have the same composition [as the wildtype] but should be similar in composition as these products can have a healthier profile than the wildtype.”

Dr. Buko also highlighted how the metabolomic studies can improve the taste of novel food products. “Taste is a composite of interactions with the taste receptors on your tongue, texture and odor. Many taste-active components happen to be the most common metabolites that we routinely quantify. For example, many amino acids and short peptides are major contributors to umami or kokumi tastes. Small metabolites like these are exactly where HMT can fit in and advance our clients’ R&D progress.”

Considering that metabolomic studies can measure the nutrient profile of foods like cell-based meat and seafood, these studies can be used to improve the nutritional profile of cell-based meat products compared to conventional meat and seafood. “This is something that we discuss with each client, in terms of what they might want to do or can do in terms of product enhancement based on nutrient compositions in the developing product lines.

“Flavor and taste research is an ongoing process, and food scientists continue to discover individual taste-active small metabolites. Through HMT’s high-throughput analytical platform and experience in large-data analysis, we stay on top of the latest research for product enhancement and help our clients be at the top of their game.”

“Metabolomic studies have the potential to help companies shape their thinking ahead based on what kind of product profiles would be good for the market and then build that into their pipeline.”

Dr. Buko also clarified that HMT supports companies with nutritional profiles during product development prior to scale up and conducting larger nutritional studies on commercial food products. “We can provide both quantitative and semi-quantitative data on a small scale. When a company scales up and increases its production capacity, the company will then go to another service provider for the nutrient content that the product would require on their packaging label.”

“Our smaller sample size requirement makes us appealing”

When asked if HMT is already working with companies in the cellular agriculture field, Dr. Buko confirmed that HMT is “working with half a dozen companies in the cell-based meat and future food field and growing our client base.”

Dr. Buko states that the small sample sizes make metabolomic studies appealing for cellular agriculture companies to understand and find the right nutritional and taste profiles as they develop their products.

“One of the most attractive values about HMT metabolomic profiling for the [cellular agriculture] field is that we can start with product development scale very easily.

“We don't require hundreds of grams of a cell-based meat sample; milligrams of material are suitable with metabolomic studies.  We usually request between 30 and 40 milligrams of a sample and always work with products that are less than 50 milligrams, a few million cells or a couple hundred microliters of cell media. 

“We have a time scale that is also amenable to them. For medical studies, we might get anywhere from 100 to 500 samples. For these cellular agriculture companies, depending on their stage of research & development, it could be as low as 6 or 10 samples and can be repeated every few months as they do product development. We strive to make this analytical process very affordable and on a time scale that works for them.”

Developing a Health Index for Cell-Based Meat

When conducting a metabolomic study, the data needs to be organized and compared against a standard to interpret the findings. When it comes to a novel food like cell-based meat, a metabolomic nutritional index standard does not yet exist. According to Dr. Buko, HMT is looking to develop that nutritional index standard to help collect and present the metabolomic data in an organized manner.

“What would a nutritional index look like? Essentially, an index would look at the different types of nutrients that would be found in an animal meat or seafood product. What are the essential fatty acids found in fish meat? What are the essential amino acids in beef? What vitamins should be included? How much cholesterol is good? What is the desirable ratio and types of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids? All of these questions would constitute a metabolomic nutritional profile for product development.

“In addition to a nutritional index, for cell line development, we would measure levels of glycolysis, lipid synthesis, nucleic acid synthesis, amino acid metabolism and levels of cellular stress to enable cell development optimization.”

“Our smaller sample size requirement makes us appealing to product development allowing for testing during early stages of research.”

Dr. Buko compared the process of developing a health index for cell-based meat to another project looking at the human microbiome. “When it comes to the microbiome, for example, what does a healthy metabolite index signature look like in fecal matter, saliva or sweat? You might have individual differences in the microbiota, but there are commonalities to look for, like short chain fatty acids, polyamines, antioxidants, vitamins, and certain ratios of saturated to unsaturated fats that are going to be reabsorbed into the body.

“For these projects, we are currently putting together a microbiome index from literature findings and our publications.  The goal would be to score each metabolite based on its range of abundance and determine if it is within a normal range or outside the normal range.”

Similarly, Dr. Buko foresees creating a metabolite nutrient index for cell-based meats. “From that index, we could say that companies should aim to have a certain ratio of essential fatty acids, like saturated versus unsaturated fats, monounsaturated versus polyunsaturated, and a certain concentration of vitamins in their products, along with essential amino acids.

“This index would not be the same between the different types of meat products.”

According to Dr. Buko, a metabolite nutrient index would make it easier for companies to understand the nutrient and taste profile of their products. “With a nutrient index for cell-based meat, one can easily collect a company’s sample data and present the data in a very tabulated form. With an index, it is always easier to interpret the metabolomic data as well.”

Positioning Cell-Based Meat via its Nutritional Profile

When it comes to bringing cell-based meat to market, Dr. Buko believes a desirable taste and color profile comparable to conventional meat would be a strong selling point. With metabolomics, coloring agents such as beta-carotenes, carotenoids, luteins, and zeaxanthins can contribute to color and add to the product’s profile development.

“If the field wants to get cell-based meat to the general market, how are they going to get a consumer’s attention? Great taste and great nutrition do matter. However, if the product does not taste or look good, consumers will be turned off.”

Along with taste, Dr. Buko believes consumers may be open to cell-based meat if it has a strong nutritional and health profile and is easily accessible. “The cellular agriculture field will need to do something about its nutritional value, taste and overall perception. It is important for the product to measure up to the normal standards, like calorie count, total protein, total sugar, and type of carbohydrates.  However, even more than that may be needed to make it to our table every day.

“Metabolomic studies have the potential to help companies shape their thinking ahead based on what kind of product profiles would be good for the market and then build that into their pipeline.”

Conclusion

Following the approval to serve the first cell-based chicken by Eat Just in Singapore in 2020, it may only be a short time until more cell-based meats and seafood come to markets and restaurants around the world. As more companies look to scale their production process and come to market, there will likely be more focus and attention on the taste and nutritional profile of these products. 

While the initial gold standard is to be comparable to conventional meat and seafood, ultimately, cellular agriculture companies aim to create a healthier product with less detrimental impact on our natural resources. By measuring a product’s taste and nutritional profiles, metabolomic studies can be a valuable tool for cellular agriculture companies to do so while in product development.

Beyond cell-based meat, Dr. Buko shared that other companies in the future food field can benefit from metabolomic studies and the resulting metabolite data to create better products for consumers.

“We are working with different clients in the alternative protein, beverage, and food fields. This has allowed us to learn and help build this new exciting field of study and to set up new processes and understanding at the ground level.”

This article was sponsored by Human Metabolome Technologies. For more information about Human Metabolome Technologies, please visit their website to learn more or contact Dr. Alex Buko directly at [email protected]

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