Fancy a cup of lab-grown coffee? Finnish researchers have managed to produce coffee cells in a bioreactor using cellular agriculture. According to the team, it smells and tastes exactly like your regular cup, but comes at a fraction of the environmental cost.
Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland recently produced their first batch of cell-based coffee. This cup of coffee doesn’t require farming coffee beans or roasting them. It’s made through cellular agriculture, which enables scientists to directly cultivate real coffee cells in bioreactors without the beans.
Researchers placed coffee cell culture in the bioreactor, which is filled with a nutrient-rich medium. Inside the bioreactors, the plant cells proliferate and grow biomas. After analyses of the biomass, the team developed a roasting process, then produced its first batch of cell-based coffee.
This technology, cellular agriculture, is the same process that food techs are using to cultivate real meat without the need to slaughter animals, such as Upside Foods’ chicken or Aleph Farms’ ribeye steak. Some scientists are even cell-culturing chocolate.
VTT’s team says that the final product has passed the taste and smell test in an evaluation by the institute’s trained sensory panel. But while it tastes and smells just like your regular cup of coffee, it comes with an added sustainability advantage.
The team was motivated to grow coffee in labs as a solution to large-scale industrial coffee farming, which is driving unsustainable land use and deforestation in areas where it is grown. Coffee production has also been associated with human rights abuses, making lab-grown coffee an ethical alternative too.
Related: Coffee won’t taste or smell the same due to climate change, study finds
Four years until lab-grown coffee is a reality
According to the researchers, lab-grown coffee isn’t as futuristic as you might think. In fact, they predict that consumers could be getting their hands on it within four years.
“The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting. I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place,” shared Dr. Heiko Rischer, who led the team at VTT.
“Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation together with regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality.”
Food technology is changing coffee
Lab-grown coffee might not be the only solution to making sustainable coffee. Some companies have been using fermentation technology to replicate coffee without any beans.
Compound Foods, for example, uses microbial fermentation to make a cup that tastes, looks and smells like the real deal—and even gives people the same caffeine dose.
Another startup, Atomo, takes upcycled ingredients such as watermelon seeds, stems and husks which contain the chemical compounds found in coffee, and brews these ingredients into a natural coffee-like blend.
All images courtesy of VTT.