According to those who tried it last week, lab-grown beef doesn't really taste like meat.
So what exactly gives meat its flavor and makes us beg for more?
We've long known why ice cream and chocolate appeal so much to our taste buds: It's that blissful mixture of sugar and fat. But what's so special about bacon and steak that, for most people, it trumps the growing pile of scientific data on meat's detrimental health effects?
The answer, according to scientists, lies in meat's unique mixture of fat and umami (more about this taste later), spiced up in a process called the Maillard reaction - the browning that happens when we cook a piece of meat. "These are powerful stimuli to humans," says Paul Breslin, a nutritional sciences professor at Rutgers University.
As much as 95 percent of what we think of as meat's taste is actually its aroma, according to a Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good." And the lack of strong scents is one reason why raw meat is not very appealing.
Even animals seem to agree: If mice could cook, many would turn up their noses at raw meat. The first time Rachel Carmody of Harvard University offered her lab mice mini-steaks, both roasted and raw, the animals eagerly went for the cooked meat. In similar experiments, chimps, gorillas and orangutans were clear about their preferences, too: Roasting, grilling and stewing appealed to them.
One of the main reasons for that is the Maillard reaction, the marriage between carbohydrates and amino acids that occurs in a slightly moist, hot environment and that produces aromas so delightful that they "make us go weak at the knees," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. More than 1,000 chemical compounds are responsible for the scents of meats, and many are created by this reaction. Some smell fruity, other musty, while still others have the scent of nuts, mildew, marshmallow and even crushed bugs. When taken together, they create the enticing aroma of a backyard barbecue or a stove-top saute.
Drewnowski points out that the Maillard reaction is also behind our love of baked cookies, crusty bread and roasted coffee, but the magic that occurs during the grilling of meat is probably the most potent. The Maillard reaction is also the reason why the lab-created beef burger, which tasters said was unappetizingly bland, nonetheless smelled quite good as it was being cooked.
There may be a strong evolutionary basis for our idea of what smells good. As Drewnowski explains, "the Maillard reaction is a way for us to notice that the product has been cooked. The aroma of the Maillard reaction meant the meat was safe to eat."