Could hybrid beef-in-rice be the next big alt protein?

In an effort to combat the environmental and ethical impacts of industrial agriculture, Korean scientists have recently added an interesting dish to the growing list of alt proteins, such as lab-grown chicken or cricket-derived edibles. Their new recipe – cultured beef rice!

By growing animal muscle and fat cells inside rice grains, scientists at Yonsei University, South Korea have developed what they are calling a hybrid meat rice. The method, presented February 14 in the journal Matter [1], results in a nutritious and flavourful hybrid food that, once commercialized, could offer a more affordable protein alternative with a smaller carbon footprint.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” said first author Sohyeon Park, who conducted the study under the guidance of corresponding author Jinkee Hong at Yonsei University, South Korea. “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

In animals, biological scaffolds help guide and support the cells’ three-dimensional growth to form tissue and organs. To cultivate cell-cultured meat, the team mimicked this cellular environment – using rice. Rice grains are porous and have organized structures, providing a solid scaffold to house animal-derived cells in the nooks and crannies. Certain molecules found in rice can also nourish and promote the growth of these cells, making rice an ideal platform.

The team first coated rice with fish gelatin, a safe and edible ingredient that helps cells latch onto the rice better. Cow muscle and fat stem cells were then seeded into the rice and left to culture in the petri dish for 9 to 11 days. The harvested final product is a cell-cultured beef rice with main ingredients that meet food safety requirements and have a low risk of triggering food allergies.

Characteristics of cultured beef rice

To characterize the hybrid beef rice, the researchers steamed it and performed various food industry analyses, including nutritional value, odour, and texture. The findings revealed that hybrid rice has 8% more protein and 7% more fat than regular rice. Compared to the typical sticky and soft texture, the hybrid rice was firmer and more brittle. Hybrid rice with higher muscle content had beef- and almond-related odour compounds, while those with higher fat content had compounds corresponding to cream, butter, and coconut oil.

“We usually obtain the protein we need from livestock, but livestock production consumes a lot of resources and water and releases a lot of greenhouse gas,” Park noted. The team’s product has a significantly smaller carbon footprint at a fraction of the price.

Given that the hybrid meat rice has low food safety risks and a relatively easy production process, the team is optimistic about commercializing the product. But before the rice makes its way to our stomachs, the team plans to create better conditions in the rice grain for both muscle and fat cells to thrive, which can further boost the nutritional value.

“I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice,” said Park. “Now I see a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food. It could one day serve as food relief for famine, military ration, or even space food.”


1. Park et. al. “Rice grains integrated with animal cells: A Shortcut to a Sustainable Food System.” Matter. February 14, 2024.